IndyCar Test Notes: Juan Pablo Montoya makes most of short day

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Cold, damp conditions may have robbed him (and the other Verizon IndyCar Series competitors) of track time this morning at Barber Motorsports Park, but Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya still made the most of things in the afternoon.

The former Indianapolis 500 and CART champion, returning to open-wheel this season after a seven-year run in NASCAR, logged 55 laps in the first day of the series’ Open Test on the 2.3-mile Alabama circuit and turned in the second-fastest time (1:07.6492) in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet.

That time was only .0678 of a second off of teammate and Monday leader Will Power. And while he not ready to deem himself perfect ahead of the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 30, he believes he’s making progress.

“Just trying to get better and figure out new tires a little bit,” the Colombian said during the session. “I’m trying to learn how to get more out of the car and we’re getting there.

“It was good today, but there’s a couple of places that I need to do a little better job and be a little cleaner. But we’re getting there.”

For his part, Power is convinced that Montoya will be a force right out of the gate in St. Petersburg.

“Collectively as a team, we try to improve the car and learn from each other, but when it comes to racing, the better guy is going to be winning,” Power said. “It’s competition; it’s just how it is.

“This series, he could win the first race quite easily. I expect him to definitely drive to the front everywhere, so if you’re at the front knocking on the door, eventually you’re going to get a win.”

Scott Dixon won his first Verizon IndyCar Series title in 2003. He finished 10th in the standings in 2004, hampered by a down-on-power Toyota engine.

He then won his second series title in 2008. But despite leading the standings going into the 2009 season finale, he wound up runner-up to then-teammate Dario Franchitti.

Now, Dixon enters this season coming off of his third IndyCar crown. So, will the third time be the charm regarding a successful title defense?

Time will tell, but as he said today at Barber, the matter of holding on to the championship is “a good problem to have.”

“I’ve been in this situation a couple of times before and we actually haven’t defended it that well,” said Dixon, who was fourth-fastest on Monday. “In ’09, we had a close shot and nearly won another championship. We will just have to sort of see how it goes.

“For us in the past, when we have come close to another three championships, I think it’s always been the start of the year that has kind of hindered us. I think we need to focus on making a good start in the first three or four races.”

Teams are, of course, getting ready for the season opener in a few weeks at St. Petersburg. But they’re also preparing for when the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Barber for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on Apr. 27 (which you can see on NBCSN).

The race will serve as the third round of the 2014 championship, and for the next two days at Barber, Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe is making sure to keep tabs on his tires as he zips around the technically challenging track.

“With the treatment that was done to the track last year with some grinding, it improved lap times but it also took a toll on the tires, so you need some sort of compromise,” said Hinchcliffe, who was ninth-quickest on Monday.

Finding a happy medium is also important at Barber in regards to car set-up.

“The other big compromise at this track is setup-wise – the low-speed corners, you’ll be dealing with a lot of under-steer and [in] some of the other corners, the rear slides out,” he said.  “So you want a nice, stable rear and a well-connected front.”

Rossi charges to fifth after starting 18th at Barber

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Alexander Rossi has had a black cloud hanging over his head in each of the first two races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. Last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner suffered an ill-timed caution at St. Petersburg that hurt his team’s strategy and then dropped out at Long Beach after an engine failure when he was running in the top three.

That misfortune continued on into Saturday, as he and the Andretti-Herta Autosport team couldn’t find the speed in qualifying, leaving him 18th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, everything turned up roses come race time and Rossi had arguably the drive of the day. Rossi was immediately on the charge and used a combination of strategy and speed to run seventh after the opening sequence of pit stops. He hung around the top five the rest of the day, eventually moving up to fifth after Charlie Kimball and Will Power made late-race pit stops.

All told, it was a remarkable run for him.

“It’s good considering we started 18th,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “We were pretty disappointed yesterday. We were on the verge of desperation. We had to diagnose what happened Saturday.”

The result vaulted Rossi all the way up to 10th in the championship standings, one point ahead of Tony Kanaan. He trails points leader Sebastien Bourdais by 57 markers heading into the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

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Bourdais hangs on to points lead after Barber

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Sebastien Bourdais’ drive to eighth is not quite the headline-maker to match his win at St. Petersburg or his second at Long Beach, but it was still a championship-caliber drive on a weekend where he and Dale Coyne Racing didn’t quite have the pace they had in the opening two races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Bourdais advanced out of his Round 1 qualifying group, but went no further after turning the 12th fastest time in Round 2, leaving him 12th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, he managed to weather the storm and keep his nose clean, taking home an unspectacular but respectable eighth.

“Yeah not quite sure what did what. Maybe the conditions got us more in the operation of the tires,” he told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee when asked about his struggles during the weekend.

Bourdais also added that might have been able to pass Tony Kanaan for seventh in the final laps, but he couldn’t quite do enough to make a run at him.

“I really thought I had (Kanaan) there. He used the pushed to pass. I didn’t forget! I really thought I had him. He used the push to pass on the way back. Shame on me. It was a good fight. Not the greatest day but top 10 is good for the guys and the Sonny’s BBQ car.”

Bourdais leads Scott Dixon by six points and Josef Newgarden by seven. Simon Pagenaud sits 10 markers behind while James Hinchcliffe is 15 back after three races.

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A full day of Fernando: Alonso takes Barber by storm (VIDEO)

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Fernando Alonso was a busy man today at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as he prepares for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and made the rounds of media and promotion in doing so as part of his joint entry into the race thanks to McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport.

The two-time Formula 1 World Champion arrived on pit lane for Sunday’s morning warmup and set up in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda pit, where he’d interact with Michael Andretti and the rest of the team.

Alonso had a quick sit-in in Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Honda:

Alonso then made it to the media center for a formal press conference with Andretti, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, the head of INDYCAR’s parent company. Alonso was high on life through most of the press conference and had a few playful jabs at some of his competitors.

Before the race, Alonso signed some autographs for fans, who were pleased he was on site.

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Photo: IndyCar

From there, it was a chance to head to the grid and speak with NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell.

Alonso’s day wasn’t done, as he visited both the NBCSN booth and the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network booth for further interviews. A portion of the NBCSN interview is below.

Alonso will now head to Indianapolis with the team this week for a seat fit and further preparation for his May 3 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his first run in the car. He’ll then be off to Sochi, Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, which you can see on NBCSN (times here).

Dixon maintains excellent start despite another tough P2 at Barber

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Such is the brilliance of Scott Dixon that his start to his 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – finishes of third, fourth and second – can be viewed as disappointing because potential wins have gone begging.

The latest chapter of his almost-winning-but-not-quite saga to open this year’s campaign occurred at the track where he has his best results without a win, Barber Motorsports Park.

Dixon was top Honda on the day in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, but alas, one spot short of a victory as he scored his seventh Barber podium in eight races – all of them either seconds or thirds.

On this occasion, Dixon did his usual masterstroke of fuel saving by running longest in the first stint, running to Lap 24 and leading two laps.

Dixon also got ahead of Josef Newgarden on the final pit stop sequence despite running behind him and Will Power on the road during the middle stint.

But after a restart from the second and last full-course caution on Lap 68, Newgarden muscled his way past Dixon at Turns 15 and 16 for third place on the inside, leaving Dixon very little room on corner exit in a forceful but not dirty passing move.

While that was for third at the time, it wound up being the pass for the win because Dixon’s teammate, then-leader Charlie Kimball, pitted from an off-sequence strategy and the would-be winner, Power, pitted with a left rear puncture.

It left Dixon high and dry but in his usual so good, yet so close, P2, with three laps led. He felt worse for Power and gave Newgarden plaudits for the move.

“I saw him late coming into Turn 15 or 16. I tried to hold him back, but I wasn’t able to hold him back. It’s deserved for him,” Dixon told NBCSN’s Marty Snider post-race.

“The NTT Data car was strong. I feel bad for Will Power. It was a false flat tire perhaps? So yeah, that and a good job to Josef.”

Dixon elaborated a bit more on the day in the post-race press conference.

“I typically hold a fairly tight line there. But, yeah, he dove it in there, with some speed. He couldn’t make the corner at the appropriate time, so we kind of both ran wide there. But, you know, it was a great move.

“Josef did a hell of a job there on the blacks. Obviously had a clean start and really had some good longevity on that stint and was able to pit short and jump on reds.

“I think, you know, I feel bad for Will obviously with the flat tire issue there, but then also left the door open a little bit in 16. Josef put his nose in there. Tried to turn down, but through that whole complex, 14, 15, 16, I was just so loose. If I turned more, would have spun out.

“Credit to Josef. Drove a hell of a race. Team Penske, congratulations to them. Seventh podium here at Alabama without a win. Good in a lot of ways, but unfortunately we come here to win and we came up short.”

Despite not winning, Dixon still sits second in the points, just six points behind Sebastien Bourdais, who finished eighth.

Dixon and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series head to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix next weekend (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), where he has a win to defend.