Bourdais leads IndyCar points heading to Barber. Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar heads south to Barber on NBCSN this weekend

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ annual trip to Birmingham, Ala. at Barber Motorsports Park has quickly emerged as one of the perpetual favorite stops on the calendar, and marks Round 3 of the 2017 season on NBCSN.

NBCSN will air qualifying and race coverage this weekend from Birmingham, highlighting the picturesque road course that has often been called the “Augusta of race tracks.”

Thus far it’s been a surprising start to the 2017 IndyCar season as Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe have made it two winners from the smaller budget Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teams, both driving Hondas, on the street course races at St. Petersburg and Long Beach.

The proverbial powerhouse teams, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, are yet to win in 2017. Meanwhile Andretti Autosport has shown improved form in both qualifying and the races, but have yet to deliver a result to validate those improvements. They have provided a lot of the headlines in recent weeks, thanks to the confirmation of two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in a jointly entered McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport car for this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Interestingly, this is the first time since the IndyCar and Champ Car series merged in 2008 that none of these three teams, Penske, Ganassi and Andretti, have won the first two races.

All five past winners of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama are in Sunday’s field. Defending series champion Simon Pagenaud won here last year after a titanic scrap with Graham Rahal; Josef Newgarden won his first career race here two years ago, also defeating Rahal.

Ryan Hunter-Reay won here back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, with Will Power winning back-to-back in 2011 and 2012. Helio Castroneves won here for the first race in 2010.

Rahal has two second-place finishes here in as many years and seeks a breakthrough victory. Scott Dixon has an incomparable record of six podium finishes from 2010 through 2015, four runner-up finishes and two third-place finishes, but has not won here.

Bourdais and Coyne lead the points, but his best finish at this track is only eighth place.

Add in Alonso making a guest appearance for his first time in an IndyCar paddock and rookie Zach Veach making his series debut as an injury replacement for JR Hildebrand at Ed Carpenter Racing and there will be no shortage of story lines.

Leigh Diffey will anchor alongside analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy; Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller are in the pits.

Here’s the schedule with where to watch on TV on digital platforms. Live streaming can be found here for both qualifying and the race.

Beyond NBCSN, fans can catch all the action via NBC Sports online at NBCSports.com/Live, or through the NBC Sports app which is available on the iTunes App Store, Google Play, Windows Store, Roku Channel Store, Apple TV and Amazon Fire.

The next race is the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, on April 29.

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.