The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Phoenix International Raceway after an 11-year hiatus this weekend for the second race of the 2016 season.
There are storylines aplenty heading to the desert three weeks removed from the race through the streets of Saint Petersburg, Florida.
Here are five things to watch this Sunday night.
1. RETURN TO THE OVALS
This race will be the first on an oval for the series since Justin Wilson was killed when a piece of flying debris from a car impacted his helmet at Pocono last August.
Much was done in the offseason to lower the risk of errant pieces of carbon fiber from endangering drivers, including the reduction of winglets on the cars.
But the biggest addition to car safety in terms of reducing debris issues is the tethering of the nose cone and rear wing and wheel pods to the chassis. Previously, only tires were tethered to the car to prevent them from breaking loose and potentially causing havoc.
The hope is that a freak accident such as Wilson’s never happens again, but in the ongoing quest for greater safety, more tethering could go a long way toward preventing future tragedies.
2. THE QUEST FOR A GOOD SHOW
IndyCar announced earlier this week that it was going with aero specifications used at a test at Phoenix in February.
Many drivers chimed in on the high-downforce set-up saying that it would be difficult to pass as the aero configuration will lead to the ability to go around the track without taking the foot off the throttle. However, the series is confident that the combination of tire degradation and dirty air will lead to some drivers rising and others falling based on chassis setup.
As IndyCar attempts to regain a foothold at a storied open-wheel venue, it is important to put on a good show for fans and not have a procession of cars in single file unable to pass, nor does it want tight, pack racing that is extremely dangerous.
It is a fine balance in which IndyCar hopes it has identified the sweet spot.
3. LEGACIES LOOK TO REBOUND
Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti are both looking for solid runs this weekend after being caught up in incidents at St. Pete.
Rahal was clipped by Carlos Munoz and was part of the multi-car “parking lot” that ensued. Rahal was able to continue in the event but placed 16th.
Andretti was flying through the field after starting 14th but went in hot into a corner on an attempted overtake. He spun and fell a lap down, limping to a 15th-place finish.
Both need a good weekend gain some momentum and not fall too far behind in the points race.
A victory by either of the popular drivers would be huge in a race that IndyCar is hoping has financial success.
4. MONTOYA ON A MISSION
Juan Pablo Montoya held a 47-point lead in the standings heading to the final race of the season in 2015, but lost the championship to Scott Dixon on a tiebreaker (most wins).
It was a shocking end to the campaign for Montoya after he led the points standings all year long and won the Indianapolis 500.
This season, Montoya looks to dominate from start to finish, a quest he began at St. Pete by driving away from the field in the latter half of the race.
While he has never raced at Phoenix in an open-wheel car, Montoya is plenty comfortable on ovals, with nine of his 15 combined wins in CART and IndyCar coming on ovals.
Montoya last won back-to-back races in 1999 when he strung together three straight victories in CART at Long Beach, Nazareth and Rio de Janeiro.
5. AJ FOYT RACING RESURGENCE
Last year was a disaster for AJ Foyt Racing. Drivers Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth combined for just 10 top 10 finishes and eight DNFs (did not finish). The duo’s 62 laps led for all of 2015 was less than 10 other drivers in the field.
Super Tex’s team is looking for better results in 2016, a quest that began with solid finishes at St. Pete by Sato (sixth) and Hawksworth (11th).
It could be a make-or-break season for both drivers in the Foyt stable, Sato has just one win in three-plus years with the team and has never finished higher than 14th in the points standings. But Sato taps into the Japanese racing community, of which team engine supplier Honda is a big supporter.
Hawksworth is in his third season of IndyCar racing after a single season in Indy Lights in 2013 and has just one top-five finish in 35 races.
Can Sato and Hawksworth keep the good vibes going at Phoenix?