By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The popular Barber Motorsports Park is the fourth round of the 17-race championship trail which also starts the month of May.
After having one race a month since February, the championship trail will kick into ultimate high gear with three races.
So far, it’s been Team Penske’s trail with the organization winning all three races with Josef Newgarden scoring the last two victories. Newgarden hopes to put Penske 4-0 for the first time since 2012 when Will Power got it done in São Paulo.
Ironically, Power’s feat also marked his third straight win. Something the championship leader will hope to accomplish this Sunday. While Newgarden acknowledge how the No. 2 team have it good right now, the biggest picture is constantly moving forward.
“I can’t deny things feel really good on the 2 car. They’re just progressing. We’re not taking steps forward and steps back. It’s not like two steps forward, two steps back, or vice versa. I feel like it’s going forward every single time and we’re just getting better,” said Newgarden.
“I like to monitor that. We’re all monitoring it pretty closely. We all want to keep that cadence throughout the year. Ideally we’ll just keep getting better all the way to the finish. We had a pretty good starting point. It would be great if we could do that.
“These things ebb and flow at times. We’ve been on a good trajectory at the moment. I don’t want to see it flatten too much, I want to see it go the other way. I feel confident with what we’ve got, feel good at showing up anywhere.
“Being at Team Penske makes that easier. I always feel confident in our group, feel like we’ve got the best of the best working on these cars. Confidence is high, but that only takes you so far. There’s always a lot that can knock you off.”
Fresh off of having solid pace during Indianapolis 500 testing last week, Jimmie Johnson will look to have a turnaround after a miserable weekend at Long Beach. Not only he crashed in two practice sessions and the race itself, he had surgery on his right hand.
Johnson explained it’ll be crucial to train his hand in preparation for this weekend in Alabama.
“(It’ll) be important for me to make sure I get my grip strength and my muscle strength kind of in my right arm up to par so I can be physically ready for the race,” said Johnson.
“Sit and wait. I think there’s actually two road course races before we get on the oval. So my expectations for street and road is keep improving, try to work my way in the mid pack, and when we get back here I think my expectations go up quite a bit.”
Returning to the site of his maiden INDYCAR win is Alex Palou. Although he sits third in points, he’s off to his best start in his already successful career in terms of race finishes.
The reigning champion felt confident Chip Ganassi Racing are ready for the fight against Team Penske.
“I think so far so good. We started fighting for races, which is what you want. You cannot always win, like Penske guys have been doing so far this start of the season,” said Palou.
“We’ll try and stop these guys at Barber. It’s not going to be easy. They were strong there last year, as well. But we need to focus on us, and I think we’re doing a good job.
“The win is going to come whenever. It’s not like it needs to come now at Barber. As long as we keep on improving and being ourselves and being consistent and having fight, we’ll be all right.”
The biggest wild card is how weather will impact the 90-lap contest with potential forecasted. Time will tell how the field of 26 cars will adapt, but a strong result will build confidence to a competitor with the grand picture later this month at Indy.
By the Numbers
What: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 4 of 17
Where: Barber Motorsports Park – Birmingham, AL (Opened: 2003, first INDYCAR event was 2010)
When: Sunday, May 1
TV/Radio: NBC/Peacock/INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 160), 1:00 pm ET
Track Size: 2.3-mile road course
Race Length: 90 laps, 207 miles
2021 Race Winner: Alex Palou – No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (Started 3rd, 56 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Pato O’Ward – No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet (65.5019 seconds, 126.409 mph – April 17, 2021)
From the Driver’s Seat
Felix Rosenqvist – No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet
“We have fun. It’s a great track. I think probably one of our strongest road courses as a team. We’re pretty pumped going back there.
“It’s one of those like proper physical, demanding tracks. I think all of us definitely take a deep breath before you jump in the car for that one. Especially with the new surface, it’s hard work. It’s a rewarding track.
Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
“I’m thankful that we’re able to test at Barber. I feel like I’m much quicker than I was there last year. Just trying to take smart steps forward and find pace.
“Barber is a very demanding racetrack with a lot of penalties out there for you if you are too aggressive. I’m going to be smart with that.”
Last Time at Barber
Barber kick started the 2021 INDYCAR campaign where one man began his quest towards the championship. That man being Alex Palou who made his Chip Ganassi Racing debut last April and won right out of the gate. A feat that’s been done by the likes of Michael Andretti (1994) and Dan Wheldon (2006).
The key ingredient to Palou’s triumph was adapting from a three-stop strategy down to two with cautions playing a pivotal role. All thanks to the No. 10 Ganassi squad.
“I think to do a two-stop you had to go really, really slow just because of fuel mileage, but as we got two yellows, it was clear,” said Palou after his win. “Like as soon as the first yellow came I was already thinking on two stops. I was trying to save as much fuel as possible there.”
He also noted how Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi didn’t save much fuel and ended up pitting three times.
“To be honest, I saw that Rossi and Pato, they were not saving that much fuel. I was like wondering are they going to just not even try to do it or do they just know how to do it and not me,” Palou explained. “I was surprised that they didn’t go for a two-stop because I think it was fairly easy after the two yellows.
“But hey, I didn’t call a two-stop. It was the team that they just told me, Now it’s a time to push. Do 15 more laps and this is the target for fuel mileage that you have to do. So that’s what I did, and it worked.”
While Palou had a strong showing, Newgarden didn’t make it past the opening lap. Newgarden lost control and not only had his day cut short, it collected a few competitors which also eliminated Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Such disastrous start has been put behind with the mindset focusing on a better outing this Sunday.
“It’s behind us and I’d love to go back and redeem myself,” said Newgarden at Long Beach last month. “It was certainly a bruise that I’ve not had before around that place, and typically it’s been a strong venue for us, so I’m encouraged going back. I think we can have a good run there this year.”
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Friday, April 29
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 1 (4:00 pm to 5:00 pm – Peacock)
Saturday, April 30
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 2 (10:00 am to 11:00 am – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (1:00 pm to 2:15 pm – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Final Practice (5:20 pm to 5:50 pm – Peacock)
Sunday, May 1
- Indy Lights (10:55am – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Pre-Race Show (12:30 pm – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (1:00 pm – 90 laps, 207 miles – NBC/Peacock/SiriusXM)
- NTT IndyCar Series Post-Race Show (Approx. 3:00 pm – Peacock)