Barber-Preview

IndyCar: Will high grip and high tempers equal high drama at Barber?

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Barber Motorsports Park for Round 3 of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series calendar, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, could be a humdinger based on the two past years’ races at the circuit or the two opening races to this season.

What had been something of a processional race the first two times has suddenly blossomed into one that’s featured some sensational and frequent passing. In part, that’s been due to the high grip nature of the track surface and what’s been a big difference between the primary black and alternate red compounds of Firestone tires during the race.

Last year alone, there were two very memorable passes. Ryan Hunter-Reay made the move on Helio Castroneves for the lead – ultimately the win – into the best passing corner on the circuit, the Turn 5 hairpin. Meanwhile Charlie Kimball snookered Will Power with a move to the outside, then inside, on the left-right switchback Turns 11 and 12for fourth place.

This year, the hot tempers from Long Beach plus the high grip level of the track and likely high temperatures could all boil to the surface in the 90-lap race.

Hunter-Reay, the defending race winner, has extra motivation to bounce back after an ambitious maneuver at Turn 4 last race at Long Beach took he and Josef Newgarden out as the pair were battling for the lead. Five other cars were caught up in the contretemps.

Castroneves enters the weekend needing to be on his best behavior after a tweet – allegedly sent out by his sister Kati from Helio’s account – earned him probation from INDYCAR for violation of the sanctioning body’s social media policy. He’s also keen to regain the upper hand within Team Penske after finishing a frustrated third at St. Petersburg, and pitting late and falling to 12th in Long Beach.

Power, the series points leader, a two-time Barber winner (2011-’12) and fastest driver in preseason testing at Barber, also has drama following him heading into the weekend when he nudged Simon Pagenaud at Turn 6 and took the Frenchman out of contention. With first and second thus far this year, Power enters the weekend with a 27-point lead on Long Beach winner Mike Conway and 33 on Pagenaud.

Kimball, the fourth member of that above-mentioned quartet, could well be a top sleeper and could also use a drama-free weekend. Mechanical gremlins have struck his No. 83 Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet each of the first two races, and the likeable Californian is stone last in points.

But there’s plenty of upside for Kimball entering the weekend. He’s a traditionally strong permanent road course qualifier, the Mid-Ohio race winner a year ago and has the potential to match former teammate Dario Franchitti in terms of turning his season around starting at the third race. Franchitti was 26th and last after two races last year, but cracked off four poles, four podiums and 11 top-10 finishes in the next 13 races. It began with a fourth place finish in Race 3.

Heck, Pagenaud could be the biggest threat to the establishment after three excellent weekends at Barber the last three years. The Schmidt Peterson driver finished eighth in a fill-in role for Ana Beatriz at Dreyer & Reinbold in 2011 – his first open-wheel start in 3.5 years. The last two years he’s ended fifth and sixth. If all goes to plan, it would not surprise to see him on the podium for the first time in 2014.

Then there is Scott Dixon. The defending series champion has the best total record in the four past starts, yet he’d probably call it awful.

He’s finished runner-up in all four races.

Dixon, who’s not been spell-bindingly quick the first two races of the year, should be back to pole and win contention this weekend. Given his run of seconds, nothing short of a win will do for the driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

The drama storyline doesn’t end with Dixon, though. It extends to the guy he hit in Long Beach – Justin Wilson of Dale Coyne Racing – who may well have won two weeks ago had there not been the contact at Turn 8. This is a track where Wilson hasn’t had the best of results thus far, but you could see him punching through.

What of Juan Pablo Montoya? He’s gotten a bunch of testing in at this track, both in private and the official preseason test. This could be the place where JPM makes the Firestone Fast Six for the first time, as the Team Penske driver now has two weekends under his belt with the reds. He was fourth more on tenacity and grit than outright pace in Long Beach; this could be the weekend where pace gets him the result instead.

We’ve barely even mentioned Conway to this point – and he’s a former Firestone Fast Six participant here, having done the business for A.J. Foyt’s team in 2012. A second straight podium for the quiet, stealthy Englishman wouldn’t surprise either.

Foyt’s current driver, Takuma Sato, was of course the St. Petersburg polesitter and won Round 3 last year (albeit at Long Beach instead of Barber). Could he pull another one off?

But this is the beauty of this year’s IndyCar field. That’s 11 possible winners right there.

That’s without even mentioning half of CGR (Ryan Briscoe, Tony Kanaan), Andretti Autosport’s other veterans besides RHR (Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, the former of whom has always done well at Barber), the KV (Sebastians Bourdais and Saavedra) and RLL (Graham Rahal, Oriol Servia) pairs and the quick quartet of rookies (Jack Hawksworth, Mikhail Aleshin and Carlos Munoz/Huertas).

Makes picking a winner a challenge. But I’m expecting some three-driver combination out of Dixon, Pagenaud, Power, Hunter-Reay and Wilson on the podium, with Montoya, Kimball and Sato to surprise in qualifying.

At least until first practice, and it goes off script. You can see all of it Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.

Busy week of testing ahead for IndyCar teams out West

AVONDALE, AZ - MARCH 15:  Ccars race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series CampingWorld.com 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on March 15, 2015 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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The old saying “Go West, young man” is apropos for the Verizon IndyCar Series this week, ahead of a busy week of testing for teams and drivers at three key tracks on the left coast.

The action starts today with seven drivers from three teams out at Phoenix International Raceway.

Team Penske’s fearless foursome of Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud will join now Ed Carpenter Racing’s Carpenter and Josef Newgarden, and KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais for a Chevrolet manufacturer test.

Others such as Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti have been out in Phoenix already this offseason. “TK” and Rahal tested for Firestone, with “Hinch,” “RHR” and Andretti out there in a Honda test in November.

Here’s some buildup to the test on social media:

On the team plane to Phoenix… First time in car for 16

A photo posted by Will Power (@12willpower) on

The latter post appears to be a teaser of Newgarden’s temporary Fuzzy’s Vodka colors on what will be his No. 21 Chevrolet.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the other four-car powerhouse in the series – Chip Ganassi Racing – will have a four-car test of its own.

New signing Max Chilton is set to join the usual trio of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, with the Englishman set for his first test in an IndyCar at Sonoma Raceway.

Chilton, who’s been in the U.S. for media day and then stayed in the run up to Sonoma as he prepares for his debut, has been taking in the sights and sounds of San Francisco.

Honda won’t be devoid of testing this week as down the road in Fontana, Calif., at Auto Club Speedway, Hinchcliffe, Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz will be doing a Honda manufacturer test day on the 2.0-mile oval. While the track won’t see an IndyCar race this year, it remains a good testing location.

Chilton will also have his oval rookie test later this week at the same track, on Saturday. The Englishman failed to start at Indianapolis due to a fuel cell issue, but then promptly won his second oval start at Iowa within the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.

Sonoma was one of the few tracks Chilton didn’t learn from his training within the Mazda Road to Indy, but he should pick it up pretty easily.

Munoz explored other options before re-signing with Andretti

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With Ryan Hunter-Reay still under a multi-year contract and Marco Andretti confirming a one-year extension into 2016, their status of driving with Andretti Autosport for the Verizon IndyCar Series season wasn’t really in question.

Carlos Munoz’s, however, sort of was. But the Colombian has re-signed with the team for at least one more season in its third car.

Munoz captured his first career victory at the first of two races at Belle Isle Park in Detroit, in an admittedly strategy-aided and weather-shortened race. Nonetheless, it was just rewards for a driver who had shown plenty of glimpses of potential in a handful of 2013 starts and his first full season in 2014.

But as the year went on there weren’t really too many other drives that stood out and Munoz tested the free agent waters before re-signing with Andretti Autosport.

As Munoz related during IndyCar media day last week, staying with Andretti was always the goal, but wasn’t guaranteed until his signing was confirmed in November.

“We had the contract for this year, but I had been talking to other teams,” Munoz told NBC Sports during the media day.

“The situation was that my first priority was to stay with Andretti, but they were looking for sponsorships and everything. They found one. (Grupo) Exito signed with them for one year, one extra year, knowing it’s the 100th running, and they want to be competitive in 500. I’m happy to be back for a third year.”

Munoz was a revelation in his first two Indianapolis 500 attempts in 2013 and 2014. He finished second and fourth those two years, and his fearless, low line route through Turn 1 in particular raised eyebrows around the paddock.

But with the deficiencies that affected Honda’s aero kit last year at Indianapolis, a third straight standout drive simply wasn’t on the cards.

Munoz and the late Justin Wilson nearly snatched top-five results on fuel strategy, before late-race splashes for fuel dropped them to 20th and 21st, respectively.

“My race last year was (just) to be the first Honda,” Munoz said. “I was achieving that; I was the quickest Honda the whole race, but my mistake going in the pits cost me a drive-through.

“We knew we didn’t have a chance against the Chevys. We were more than 2 mph slower. You can’t do anything with that. We cannot change much stuff now this year. But we’re fighting there, and we’ll see if we can change the package.”

Munoz debuted a new red and white firesuit at media day, which would seem to indicate a change in livery for his No. 26 Honda when it’s revealed.

Munoz and Hunter-Reay will be testing this week at Auto Club Speedway, on Wednesday, in a Honda manufacturer test day.

The three drivers are the lone three confirmed for the full-season. Team principal Michael Andretti admitted to my colleague Luke Smith over the weekend in Buenos Aires that there is a chance Robin Frijns may run selected races in a fourth car, while Simona de Silvestro told Smith her FIA Formula E commitments may prevent her from an Indianapolis 500 bow.

100th Indy 500, Arrow Electronics make Super Bowl ad list

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The biggest race the Verizon IndyCar Series has on the calendar this year – if not one of the biggest races on the overall motors calendar in 2016 – and one of IndyCar’s leading cutting edge sponsors have made it to the Super Bowl.

Or at least the Super Bowl ad list that came out during the game, Super Bowl 50, in regional areas.

Nonetheless, if you weren’t in certain parts of the country and did not see ads for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, and two spots from Arrow Electronics (sponsor of James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), they’re included in this post.

The IMS ad is above, the two Arrow spots below.

Arrow: Aerospace & Defense – Short

Arrow: I Am a Racecar Driver – Short

Hill expects Rosberg to be ‘more formidable’ in 2016

xxxx during the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez  on November 1, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.
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1996 Formula 1 world champion Damon Hill believes that Nico Rosberg will be “more formidable” in 2016 following his back-to-back title defeats to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton.

Rosberg took the title race down to the final race of the year in 2014 before losing to Hamilton, and proved to be the Briton’s closest rival again in 2015, albeit losing the championship with three rounds remaining.

Rosberg endured a five-month winless streak last season that led many to question his ability to battle with Hamilton for a championship, only for the German to answer by winning the final three races of the year.

Speaking to Sky Sports, Hill said that Rosberg showed his true strength with this trio of victories, signalling that he could put up a greater fight to Hamilton for the title in 2016.

“I think he is a little bit more formidable now,” Hill said. “I think after the Austin defeat, that day when he lost the championship and Lewis infamously tossed the cap and he tossed it straight back, there was a moment where Nico said ‘OK, I am not going to take this anymore’ and he did go ahead and win all the remaining races.

“He can go on ahead and become the other world champion’s son [Keke Rosberg won the F1 title in 1982] to become a world champion himself.

“He probably knows time is running out and when you get all those ingredients together you maybe get a little bit of a hardening of the determination. Maybe he will be more determined this year and harder to beat.”