By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
LONG BEACH, California — The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season makes its first of two stops to California for Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. This weekend marks the 44th time a race has taken place along Shoreline Drive, the 34th such time for IndyCar racing and the second of a back-to-back-to-back stretch.
Long Beach has provided for some interesting results. Last year marked James Hinchcliffe’s return to Victory Lane after a two year drought, but it is his fellow Canadian teammate that is making waves throughout the IndyCar paddock: Robert Wickens.
Wickens has been on a tear in the last two races for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. During the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Wickens led 69 of 110 laps on the twisty street circuit before late-race contact with former junior level rival Alexander Rossi, dropping the No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda down to 18th place.
Last weekend at ISM Raceway (formerly Phoenix International Raceway), Wickens again led many laps, but a late pit stop under caution by Josef Newgarden gave the defending series champion fresh tires with which he was able to power around Wickens’s outside and put the No. 1 Verizon Chevrolet in Victory Lane.
Rossi would finish third behind Wickens and congratulated Wickens on pit road after the race. The tension from St. Petersburg might have subsided for the time being, but Wickens is still hungry for victory that has seemed so close and yet has been so far away.
“Life right now in INDYCAR is pretty good,” said Wickens in a pre-event release. “I definitely can’t complain with how competitive we’ve been in the first two races. Long Beach is going to be a new challenge. We’re going to have to start from zero again, but I’m really happy with where we are as a team and how we’re working together. Hopefully, we can keep this little run of performance going and try to score some good points in the Lucas Oil car.”
Rossi had to overcome a penalty for hitting a crew member, which put him down a lap before charging through the field, making 53 passes to un-lap himself under green and even led Lap 188 of 250.
Looking down through the field, it’s identical to the opening race in St. Petersburg with only one exception, that being Kyle Kaiser is now behind the wheel of the No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet in his first race inside his home state, having grown up in Santa Clara, which is about six hours up the coast from Long Beach.
One of the larger storylines in the opening race of the year was the rise of the rookies. Wickens, Matheus Leist and Jordan King all made the final round of qualifying in their first IndyCar race. Wickens and King led in St. Petersburg, while Leist had some mechanical difficulties. At Phoenix, King sat out in deference to team owner Ed Carpenter, who drives the ovals in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet while King takes over for the road and street courses.
When trying to predict a winner, recent history suggests that it will not be a repeat winner. The last time a driver won two years in a row was in 2005-06-07 with Sebastien Bourdais. Those numbers work against Hinchcliffe repeating, but after SPM reworked their team in the offseason it would not be a bad bet to look at him for winning.
Then again, with how strong Rossi and Wickens have been, they are solid favorites as well.