What to watch for: IndyCar at Barber

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Bounce-back for RHR, Power?: IndyCar’s two main championship contenders from a year ago make up today’s front row for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, but polesitter Ryan Hunter-Reay (pictured) and defending Barber champion Will Power had dismal results in the season opener last month at St. Petersburg. They know that they can’t afford another early “mulligan” today.

AJ Allmendinger returns: The former Champ Car racer is returning to open-wheel action on one of IndyCar’s most physically demanding tracks. He’s been working hard to prepare for the rigors of battling Barber, and got in some test time there during the “Spring Training” sessions in March. But testing is one thing and racing a full field – and a very deep one, at that – is another. A Top-10 finish would be a solid result for him to work from as he heads toward Long Beach and the Indianapolis 500.

Get a grip: A newly-resurfaced track at Barber has played a big role in the higher speeds we’ve seen this weekend, but so have modified Firestone Firehawks. Compared to the tires used in last year’s race at Barber, this year’s versions of both the primary blacks and alternate reds have a softer compound. It’ll be interesting to see which drivers can protect their tires (especially their rear ones) along the course of a stint and stretch them out a little further.

Caught in the web: The main “hot spot” for passing at Barber Motorsports Park is Turn 5 (Charlotte’s Web), which is a left-hand hairpin that is the slowest part of the course. Drivers have two chances to make up ground here with an inside pass at either the apex of the corner or coming off of it at Turn 6. Even with the emergence of new passing zones in last year’s race, Charlotte’s Web remains the signature corner at Barber and you can expect a lot of action here all day long.

Michael Andretti looking forward to new Australian Supercars venture

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If it seems like Michael Andretti is out to conquer the world, he is – kind of.

The former IndyCar star turned prolific team owner has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s and five overall, second only to Roger Penske’s 16 Indy 500 triumphs.

Along the way, in addition to expanding his own IndyCar and Indy Lights operation, the son of Mario Andretti and the primary shareholder of Andretti Autosport has also branched out into Global RallyCross and Formula E racing in recent years.

And now, Andretti has further expanded his brand internationally, following Penske to the world down under — as in the world of Australian V8 Supercars.

Andretti has teamed with Supercars team owner Ryan Walkinshaw, along with veteran motorsports marketer and executive director of McLaren Technology Group and United Autosports owner and chairman, Zak Brown.

Together, the three have formed Walkinshaw Andretti United, based in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The new team kicks off the new season with the Adelaide 500 from March 1-4.

“It’s just extending our brand and putting it out there,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “The Supercars are such a great series.

“It all started with Zach Brown calling me and said ‘You have to talk to Ryan Walkinshaw. He’s got something interesting to talk to you about.’

“We talked and literally in like a half-hour, we said, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this work.’ And then Zack was like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ And then Zack came in as a partner and it’s cool now that we have the Walkinshaw Andretti United team.

“I’m really excited about that program, the guys at the shop are excited about it, we’ve been doing a lot of things to try and help it because it’s such a cool series and the cars are so cool.

“I went down there to Bathurst, which was to me one of the coolest tracks in the world. I wish I could have driven it, I really do. It looks like a blast.

“It’s amazing how big that series is when you go down there. It’s one of the biggest sports in Australia. It was just a great opportunity for us to extend our portfolio.”

Admittedly, Andretti had some extra incentive to want to get involved in the Supercars world: Penske joined forces with legendary Dick Johnson Racing in September 2014.

The organization came together quickly and the rebranded DJR Team Penske went on to win the 2017 V8 Supercars championship.

“Roger was down there the last few years,” Andretti said, adding that fact as incentive to get his own organization into the series. “So it’s cool to go race head-to-head with Roger. That was also in the back of our minds.”

This is no start-up venture for Andretti. The roots of the new venture began in 1990 as the Holden Racing Team, which went on to become one of the most successful organizations in Australian V8 Supercar racing, having won the drivers’ championship six times and the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship’s top race, the Bathurst 1000 (essentially Australia’s version of the Indy 500), seven times.

Last season, Holden Racing team morphed into Triple Eight Race Engineering and was renamed Mobil 1 HSV Racing.

And now the company has been renamed once again for the 2018 campaign under the Walkinshaw Andretti United banner.

The team will be composed of two Holden ZB Commodores with drivers James Courtney and Scott Pye, as well as a Porsche 911 GT3-R in the Australian GT championship.

What’s next for Andretti’s motorsports portfolio? Right now, it’s pretty full, but you can bet running for championships from Australia (Supercars) to globally (GRC) to Indianapolis (Indy 500) to the U.S. (Verizon IndyCar Series) are at the top of this year’s list.