By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama for the Verizon IndyCar Series has concluded, and Josef Newgarden has now notched his first win as a Penske driver. He was able to pull off a daring pass on four-time Series Champion, Scott Dixon, to take second, and then inherited the lead when leader Will Power experienced a tire issue. Let’s take a look back on some of the stories coming out of the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.
1 ) Great Day for the South
Whenever at driver wins a race on his home turf, it has that story-book ending feel. The Grand Prix of Alabama is the lone race in the deep South for the IndyCar Series (South and Central Florida are not considered part of the South).
The IndyCar Series, and some of the sanctioning bodies prior, have run in the South before, most notably at Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte and Kentucky. For various reasons, none of those events exist today, and there is only one true Southerner amongst the drivers.
Josef Newgarden, who hails from Hendersonville, TN, which is about a three-hour drive from Birmingham, considers the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama as his home track, and his taking the win drew rousing approval from the fans. Barber is also the site of Newgarden’s first Series win back in 2015, making it all that much sweeter.
More importantly, it took him only three starts to validate Roger Penske’s decision to hire him. In the long and storied history of Team Penske, only two drivers (Al Unser Jr.: three starts, and Sam Hornish Jr.: one start) have matched or surpassed this feat.
Continuing on the theme of the South, Team Penske welcomed a new sponsor on board this weekend. Fitzgerald Glider Kits, a company that specializes in products for the trucking transportation industry, has agreed to put their name on Juan Pablo Montoya’s Indy 500 ride with Penske, and attached their logos to Newgarden’s car for the Grand Prix of Alabama. In addition to this, Fitzgerald also serves as a sponsor for Penske’s NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski in select Xfinity Series races.
It just so happens that Fitzgerald Glider Kits is headquartered in Crossville, TN, very close to Newgarden’s hometown. Getting a win in their first exposure to IndyCar added yet another feel-good element to the weekend.
2 ) Is it Chevy or Penske?
When Chip Ganassi moved his four-car team from the bowtie brigade over to the Honda camp, there was positive reaction from some of the other Honda Teams. It was stated that the addition of the Ganassi cars would help the Honda contingent as a whole, since the teams share a fair bit of information.
While it wasn’t stated, the inference seems to be that this is not the case among the Chevrolet teams. While we are not very deep into this season, there is a marked disparity between Team Penske, at or near the top of the timing sheets each weekend, and the other two Chevy Teams, ECR and Foyt, bringing up the rear. This was no more evident than the final box score at Barber. Penske cars 1-3-4-14 (Power had that tire issue, but led the most laps). The other Chevrolet cars: 17-18-19-20.
The curious thing is that when Ganassi was with Chevrolet, the wealth was spread a bit more evenly with Chevrolet teams, KVSH Racing and ECR, taking a few wins along the way. I’m not saying that this is a related statistic, but without the Ganassi cars, there is no middle ground in the Chevy camp.
Indeed, Team Penske’s engineering staff is the best in the business. If you were to give them a Briggs and Stratton for the weekend, these guys would find a way to get some speed out if it. This explains Team Penske’s result, but does little to explain the tremendous gap back to the other four Chevy cars. It would appear that Team Penske does what’s best for Team Penske, and doesn’t worry if the others are hung out to dry. And, Chevy doesn’t seem to mind either.
3 ) The Perfect Blueprint
The internet is full of lists if you have the patience to click through all the ads and read them. I came across one this weekend that listed “The Most Beautiful Racetracks in the World.” Of course, these lists represent the opinion of the writer, and we can agree to disagree, but I was shocked that Barber Motorsports Park did not make the list.
Road America, Spa-Francorchamps and Monza made the list, and I can’t argue with that. However, the inclusion of Phoenix and Sonoma raised my eyebrows. Phoenix is an oval in the middle if the desert; sure, it’s scenic if you like cactus. Sonoma looks lovely in the spring, but most of the year it is so dry that the scenery consists of dead vegetation, and the track doesn’t exactly lend itself to stellar racing
Seeing that Barber was omitted, I can only conclude that the list writer has never been to the track. Barber Motorsports Park is absolutely breathtaking, and it should serve as a blueprint for anyone choosing to construct a road course in the future.
Not only is the course itself a real driver’s track, but the facilities and amenities are top-notch and the grounds impeccable. There are plenty of fine vantage points to watch the racing, and plenty to do when the track is quiet. Now in its 14th year of operation, Barber Motorsports Park is quickly reaching the the status that will allow it to be mentioned in the same breath as Watkins Glen, Mid Ohio, and Road America when discussing the premier road racing facilities in the United States.
4 ) Alonso Fever
Nearly overshadowing the action on the track was the fact that two-time Formula One Champion, Fernando Alonso, was present in the Andretti Autosport pits on race day. Alonso has recently announced that he would be skipping the Monaco Grand Prix for a chance at chasing motor racing’s triple-crown by entering the 101st Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport.
Alonso, along with McLaren principal Zak Brown, team-owner Michael Andretti, and series CEO Mark Miles, held a lunchtime press conference at Barber allowing the media to have their questions answered right from the source.
Alonso, as it turned out, was extremely candid in his comments, which is refreshing out of a Formula One driver. It is apparent that this is something that Alonso wants to do, something that McLaren wants to build on in the future, and not a publicity stunt. Watch the press conference here.
The Spaniard immersed himself within the team, intensely looking at data, and conversing with his new teammates. He then traveled to Indianapolis to visit the Andretti Autosport Shop for a seat fitting in anticipation of his first test in the DW-12 on May 3.
5) Characters in Search of an Exit
While there are some drivers pretty happy with their start to the season, there are a few characters in search of an exit. Not an exit from their team or the series, but an exit from their misfortunes. With only three races down, its certainly not desperation time yet, but realistically, on a 17 race schedule, almost 20% of the season is behind us.
2014 Series Champion, Will Power is certainly looking for an exit from his luck. Despite starting on the front row in every race, including two from pole, he sits mired 14th in points. He might be even farther back were it not for the bonus points for leading laps and winning poles. Power dropped out with a mechanical issue late in the running at St. Pete and tangled with Charlie Kimball at Long Beach. His luck looked set to change at Barber, leading the bulk of the laps in his Penske machine until the deflating Firestone threw his day in the garbage.
For Power, the poor start is alarming given the fact that he historically has a strong start to his season, but is not known as a solid closer. With better results in the past during the late season, he quite possibly could be a three or four-time champion instead of a one-timer. Power cannot afford any more bad luck from here on out.
And, speaking of Will Power, the man whom Power has described as “the most dangerous man on the track,” Charlie Kimball, is having a rough start as well. Barber marked his best finish of 2017, a meager 15th which has him 20th in points; dead last among drivers who have competed in all three rounds. It really seems that Kimball has not lived up to his potential in recent seasons and become a bit desperate.
He has had more than his share of on-track incidents in recent years, including two high-profile ones with Will Power that prompted the aforementioned comments. It doesn’t really seem all that long ago that Kimball, who drives for the Chip Ganassi Team, was pegged as a rising star after a brilliant win at Mid-Ohio in 2013. The memory of that day has faded farther and farther into the past and currently the only drivers with longer win droughts are Takuma Sato and Marco Andretti.
And, speaking of Marco Andretti, seemingly every season is going to be the one where he turns it around. 2017 was no different as he began this one with even more optimism that usual. Three races in, through no fault of his own, he is buried 17th in the standings. At St. Pete he took his Andretti Autosport Honda to an uneventful, yet solid, seventh place. At Long Beach, and again at Barber, mechanical issues reared their ugly head very early in the race.
The problem with Marco is that he doesn’t handle disappointment well, and has had a tendency to allow his frustrations to pile up on top of one another. On the flip side, I still have the feeling that when (or if) good things ever start happening for this guy, that it will have a cascade effect showing us the Marco Andretti we have always hoped to see. I have, however, been waiting an inordinately long time to see this.
The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to the track next weekend for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.