HOUSTON -- IndyCar ended a 33-day midseason layoff Friday with some of the biggest news yet.
Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan is changing teams for 2014. Chip Ganassi's team is leaving Honda to join Chevrolet.
Amid that, this weekend's doubleheader, the third such two-step of the season, will be held on a track that's new to most participants.
The sport has not raced on this 1.634-mile street circuit alongside Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome since 2007, and there have been modifications. One of them was a speed-slowing chicane that helped the drivers deal with a bad bump that was to be fixed Friday evening.
As a doubleheader, both qualifying sessions will be held on the morning of the races. Saturday's race is set for 3:30 p.m. ET; Sunday's event is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Both will air on the NBC Sports Network.
Aside from Kanaan being confirmed as the next teammate of Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball, the weekend's big storyline is Team Penske's Helio Castroneves trying to hold off Dixon for the series championship.
Dixon won IndyCar titles in 2003 and 2008, so if the five-year trend continues he'll be crowned series champion Oct. 19 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. But two-thirds of the points that remain available will be awarded this weekend, meaning Castroneves could have his first title locked up by Sunday night.
Such a title would be meaningful for Team Penske, which has not captured the series trophy since Sam Hornish Jr. did in 2006. Since then, Dixon's Ganassi team has won four titles: Dixon in '08 and Franchitti in '09, '10 and '11.
Dixon said there's not a specific advantage to being a former champion, although he conceded experience can pay dividends in the pressure-packed moments that await.
"Every year is different, and how you win them doesn't matter," he said.
Castroneves has a 49-point advantage because he has had one of the most consistent seasons of his career. Dixon said "it's pretty astonishing" that the Brazilian has such an advantage given that he's only won one race (in June at Texas Motor Speedway). Dixon has won three times, all since July 1.
Castroneves, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, said he's become "a complete driver" and believes this is his year to win a series title. He plans to race as needed this weekend.
"You've got to be racy when you've got to be racy; you've got to be smart when you've got to be smart," he said.
Castroneves will have the championship clinched if he leaves Houston with the points margin that he currently has. But he hasn't had a good start to this weekend. He was hit by the tire barrier that Josef Newgarden knocked loose, then spun on his own at the track's chicane.
Kanaan nearly signed with Ganassi's team for the 2009 season, and he probably should have. When the Brazilian declined Ganassi's offer to stay with Andretti Autosport, Ganassi turned to Franchitti, who has won three IndyCar titles and two Indianapolis 500s in that car.
Kanaan will join Franchitti, two-time series champion Dixon and first-time winner Charlie Kimball.
The signing is setting up another chapter of the great Penske-Ganassi rivalry in IndyCar. Penske recently signed Ganassi's NASCAR driver (and former Indianapolis 500 winner) Juan Pablo Montoya for 2014. Montoya joins Castroneves and three-time series runner-up Will Power.
But that's for a later date. There's a race at hand, two in fact. Then the season-ender Oct. 19 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.