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.

Monaco apartment bet gives extra spice to race for P5 in Russia

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Remember that episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler go up against Rachel and Monica in a crazy quiz that ends in them swapping apartments for a while?

Well, Formula 1 might be doing its own version on Sunday in Russia.

With Ferrari and Mercedes over one second per lap clear of the rest of the pack, the top four positions seem settled, leaving Williams and Red Bull to battle for P5.

Red Bull has been the third-quickest team for much of the season so far, yet Williams looks more competitive in Russia, with Felipe Massa charging to sixth place in qualifying to split Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

“I predicted them to be quick here. It’s been one of their stronger circuits the last few years, and Massa’s always been pretty handy around here,” Ricciardo said of Williams.

“He got close, split Max and myself. I expect that battle to remain tomorrow. Not expecting to have the battle for the win, I think that’s between Ferrari and Mercedes, but we could have a nice little battle within ourselves for the top five.”

To add an extra twist to things, it turns out that Ricciardo, Massa and Verstappen all live inside the same apartment complex in Monaco – so why not add some extra incentive to the battle?

“I was saying whoever maybe wins our battle tomorrow can get the… Massa or Verstappen, they’ve both got pretty good-sized apartments, so maybe they can give the winner their apartment for the weekend as a bit of a token gesture!” Ricciardo joked to NBCSN after the session.

“Yeah I can give a good party and I will join,” Verstappen added.

Massa laughed before saying: “I hope I will win and I cannot give!’

The race between Red Bull and Williams may be tight, but somehow we doubt remembering that the TV guide goes to Miss Chanandeler Bong or that his job is a transpon… transponster (“that’s not even a word!”) will be much help to Ricciardo, Massa or Verstappen on Sunday.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Saturday edition (VIDEO)

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Life as a rookie in Formula 1 is always tough, but for Williams’ Lance Stroll, his arrival on the grid has been particularly challenging.

Entering F1 as its second-youngest debutant and after an extensive private testing program with Williams last year, big things were expected of Stroll when he made his debut in Australia.

However, his first three races in F1 have been far from ideal, all of them ending in retirement.

The DNF is Australia was the result of a brake issue, while incidents in China and Bahrain – both of which were hard to pin on Stroll – mean the Canadian is without a classified finish to his name.

So how has he dealt with the struggles? To find out, Will Buxton brings you a special edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ to lift the lid on Stroll’s start to life in F1.

You can watch the video in full above.

JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.

Alonso counting on incidents, torpedo repeat for Russia F1 points

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Fernando Alonso is skeptical of McLaren’s top-10 chances in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, believing it will take an incident or two for the team to score its first Formula 1 points of the season in Sochi.

Alonso and McLaren teammate Stoffel Vandoorne have endured a miserable start to the 2017 season due to a number of issues with the Honda power unit, which lacks both performance and reliability.

Alonso had another difficult qualifying in Russia on Saturday, finishing 15th as he dropped out in Q2 for the fourth race in a row, but the Spaniard was pleased with his own performance.

“I felt a good qualifying, I felt a good balance on the car,” Alonso told NBCSN. “I was able to push on the corners. The car was grippy and I think we performed a good laps, especially the Q1 lap, it was quite a good one.

“I was seven-tenths in front of Stoffel. He won all the categories to Formula 1, so I think my performance right now is quite OK and I feel very competitive.

“But yeah, we were losing 1.3 seconds on the first straight this morning, around 2.5 seconds on the straights in the whole lap. But that’s what it is at the moment.”

When asked about his points chances, Alonso admitted that a top-10 finish was unlikely barring some kind of incident such as the one caused by Daniil Kvyat in last year’s race, with the Russian driver earning the nickname ‘torpedo’.

“I think the deficit is too much. Also the fuel consumption will be huge for us due to the lack of power,” Alonso said.

“So I think it’s going to be difficult. To be in the points is going to be hard, so we need some help from the guys in front. Sometimes it happens like last year. The torpedo went into Turn 3 and we gained a lot of positions.

“We will do a good start and we will do a good strategy, and we will see what we can do at the end of the race. Hopefully a top 10.”

When jokingly told he should have a word with Kvyat, Alonso said: “I will!”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.