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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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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.

Deflating end for Will Power’s Barber win hopes (VIDEO)

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Will Power’s luckless run of races continued in Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as the polesitter and driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet saw a sure win evaporate with a left rear puncture inside the final 15 laps of the 90-lap race.

Both Team Penske and Firestone have confirmed the left rear puncture to Power’s car, which forced an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 77.

Despite leading 60 of 90 laps, Power was left to finish 14th – his fifth consecutive result of 13th or worse in the Verizon IndyCar Series dating to Watkins Glen on Labor Day weekend last September.

Power controlled the race from the front of the field, losing the lead only during the various pit stop sequences. He didn’t run as long as Scott Dixon on the first stint – Dixon was able to run 24 laps out of the gate – and then fell behind his recent sparring partner Charlie Kimball after Kimball ran a random off-sequence pit strategy to lead laps late in the race, even though he’d need to pit.

The Australian inherited the race lead once Kimball pitted on Lap 75 and looked poised to snap his recent run of rough luck, but fell victim to a left rear puncture after cutting his tire in the laps previous.

The Team Penske team had told Power to pit for a couple laps, with Power instead going against the call as he thought the tire wasn’t bad enough to merit giving up the lead and losing the race.

But he answered the call to the pits on Lap 77 and that was it as far as his day went. Power fell to 17th place and was only able to recover three positions afterwards.

Speaking to NBCSN’s Robin Miller, Power lamented another lost day.

“It was such a great effort. The car was awesome and so fast. I feel bad,” Power told NBCSN. “It was literally five races in a row. Three mechanical issues. And just yeah, I don’t know what to say.

“I was feeling it. I felt it start to bottom (out). I tried to tell ’em for as long as I could it was alright, but I could feel it. Yep, that’s it. Move onto the next one.”

The next one for Power is next week’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, where he finished third last year in his first start of the 2016 season. After the five P13 or worse races and an eighth at Texas, it’s been since IndyCar’s last oval race – August 22 at Pocono Raceway – where Power last stood on the podium. That race, he won.

Small consolation was that Power did move up four positions in the points standings from 17th to a tie for 13th with Graham Rahal, and is just 10 points outside the top 10. He sits 67 markers behind series leader Sebastien Bourdais.

Newgarden pulls off first Penske win at Barber after Power’s demise

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Josef Newgarden secured his first win for Team Penske in just his third start for his new team at Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, Round 3 of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

The driver of the No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet inherited the lead on Lap 77 after teammate Will Power, who had otherwise dominated the race, was forced to pit with a left rear puncture, which was confirmed by both Firestone and Team Penske.

Newgarden had moved into prime position with a pass of Scott Dixon after a restart on Lap 67, which put the No. 2 driver into third place but a net second behind Power.

Charlie Kimball had led off sequence on a different strategy but pitted on Lap 75, which moved Power to the point. Team Penske then radioed in that he was facing a tire issue and despite Power’s calls to stay out and fight it, the Australian eventually answered the call.

Newgarden promptly proceeded to hold off Dixon for the win by 1.0495 seconds, with Simon Pagenaud on the podium in third ahead of Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi. Newgarden led the final 14 laps en route to the victory.

Dixon’s unreal run of luck at this track continued. The driver of the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing scored his fifth runner-up and seventh overall podium finish at Barber, none of which are a win.

Pagenaud started and finished third in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet but lamented a need to fuel save late in the race, which meant he wasn’t able to properly battle the top two in front of him.

Castroneves had a relatively nondescript run to fourth from second on the grid in the No. 3 AAA Team Penske Chevrolet while Rossi managed a mix of on-track passes and strategy moves to climb from 18th to fifth in the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda. Rossi got into the top-10 by Lap 21 and progressively moved forward from there.

Long Beach winner James Hinchcliffe was sixth, St. Petersburg winner and points leader Sebastien Bourdais eighth on the day, the latter after losing a late battle with Tony Kanaan in a fight over seventh.

Takuma Sato and Mikhail Aleshin completed the top 10, the latter having emerged from a battle with Ryan Hunter-Reay on the final lap as well.

Bourdais still leads the points, although that’s tightened considerably with the top five now covered by just 15 points.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Beyond the podium, Rossi (fifth), Kanaan (seventh) and Aleshin (10th) scored their first top-10 finishes of 2017… Hunter-Reay rebounded from a first lap wing change after contact to end 11th… Graham Rahal recovered from 21st to 13th… Zach Veach finished his IndyCar debut on the lead lap in 19th, and ran as high as fourth place, off-sequence.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Marco Andretti’s nightmare weekend despite pace got worse when electrical gremlins resigned him to missing the start in the pits. Despite getting back out, he finished 21st and last, several laps down… Spencer Pigot ran in the top-10 most of the race before a spin on Lap 63 brought out the day’s second full-course caution. He ended 20th… Ed Jones’ run of top-10s ended with a front wing change needed after getting hit from debris on the opening lap and the rookie dropped to 16th.

NOTABLE: Newgarden wins in his third race for Team Penske, mimicking the same feat accomplished by Al Unser Jr. in 1994. Unser Jr. promptly won that year’s Indianapolis 500 and championship… This is also Newgarden’s third straight Barber podium after winning in 2015 and coming third last year, and surprisingly, the first time in his six-year IndyCar career he’s scored consecutive podium finishes after finishing third at Long Beach… Newgarden, Dixon, Pagenaud, Castroneves, Hinchcliffe and Bourdais are the only drivers with top-10s in all three races, with Pagenaud and Dixon the only drivers with top-fives in all three.

QUOTABLE: In victory lane, Newgarden was obviously pleased to win but did feel for Power after his demise, when speaking to NBCSN’s Kevin Lee.

“Well, first off, it’s tough to see that because nobody ever wants to deal with that. It kind of goes and comes in racing. You get the breaks and sometimes you don’t. I think it was shaping up to be a really great battle for me, (Scott) Dixon, and Will; and it ended just being between Dixon and me. I feel bad for Will. I wish he could have been in that with us. But, sometimes that’s the way it rolls. Today in worked right for us in the No. 2 car and we’ll try to keep this momentum and keep going strong in the future.”

RESULTS

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Results Sunday of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Verizon IndyCar Series event at the 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (7) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 90, Running
2. (4) Scott Dixon, Honda, 90, Running
3. (3) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 90, Running
4. (2) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 90, Running
5. (18) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 90, Running
6. (6) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 90, Running
7. (10) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 90, Running
8. (12) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 90, Running
9. (14) Takuma Sato, Honda, 90, Running
10. (8) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 90, Running
11. (5) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 90, Running
12. (9) Max Chilton, Honda, 90, Running
13. (21) Graham Rahal, Honda, 90, Running
14. (1) Will Power, Chevrolet, 90, Running
15. (15) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 90, Running
16. (11) Ed Jones, Honda, 90, Running
17. (16) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 90, Running
18. (20) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 90, Running
19. (19) Zach Veach, Chevrolet, 90, Running
20. (17) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 89, Running
21. (13) Marco Andretti, Honda, 87, Running

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 108.809 mph
Time of Race: 1:54:08.7076
Margin of victory: 1.0495 seconds
Cautions: 2 for 7 laps
Lead changes: 8 among 5 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Power 1-20
Castroneves 21-22
Dixon 23-24
Power 25-43
Dixon 44
Power 45-63
Kimball 64-74
Power 75-76
Newgarden 77-90

Verizon IndyCar Series point standings: Bourdais 117, Dixon 111, Newgarden 110, Pagenaud 106, Hinchcliffe 102, Castroneves 84, Hunter-Reay 65, Sato 65, Jones 62, Rossi 60.