BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – In many respects, and to cue The Smashing Pumpkins, this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park marks the end of the beginning stanza of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
It’s the fourth race in five weeks, following a seven-month offseason, to complete the opening quarter of the 16-race season.
It’s the second permanent road course on the calendar, but the first that has a significant amount of elevation. It’s also a return to the track where teams will have had a two-day preseason test last month.
“Even in NOLA, Barber with the undulations and the elevation changes, it presents challenges that even though the two are permanent road courses,” says twice-defending Barber winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. “NOLA is much different than Barber in that way.”
It’s also the last shot to impress heading into the month of May, where all eyes, focus and attention turns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for oval aero kit testing, the second Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the 99th Indianapolis 500.
So who stands where heading into this under-the-radar crucial weekend? Here’s a quick primer:
PENSKE’S STREET SPEED, GANASSI’S ROAD RESILIENCE?
At the concrete canyons of St. Petersburg and Long Beach, Team Penske held the clear advantage. But before the rains washed away qualifying at NOLA Motorsports Park, it was Chip Ganassi Racing Teams which held the pace edge on the first road course race of the season.
Weather may well play a factor – again – heading into this weekend’s race at Barber. Saturday’s practice and qualifying day has a significant amount of rain in the forecast and could threaten to cancel qualifying for the second time in three races.
If it’s dry, I’d expect Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan to threaten usual Barber pacesetter Will Power throughout the weekend. But on a wet course, all bets are off.
It’s been Penske’s senior pair – Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves – that have been the overall standard bearers to open the year though. Both have three top-five finishes in three races and Montoya leads Castroneves, 119-116, in the points standings.
Castroneves, like Power, is a past Barber winner and judging by his early season form, Montoya seems poised to join them with another strong run this weekend. Simon Pagenaud, too, needs a weekend where he’s ahead of these two after a good but not great start to his Penske career.
Ganassi’s Charlie Kimball has also shown well at Barber in the past, notably with a spell-binding pass on Power in 2013 en route to fourth place. This could be a breakout race for he and longtime engineer Brad Goldberg. Back after a race’s hiatus, rookie Sage Karam needs a clean, trouble-free weekend in the fourth car.
ANDRETTI, HONDA’S BEST SHOT YET
The Honda aero kit package has been anywhere from five to six tenths down to the Chevrolets in street course sessions, but have shown better competitiveness on the road courses thus far in both testing and racing.
While Hunter-Reay enters as two-time defending race champion, he’s not the favorite heading into the weekend. Still, this would serve as a perfect place for a bounce back race following a frustrating run to 13th at Long Beach.
Like Kimball at Ganassi, an under-the-radar driver who always seems to shine at Barber is Marco Andretti. Andretti has led laps here on multiple occasions and last year was an absolute star in the wet conditions, en route to a season-best runner-up finish.
The key as ever for Marco is his qualifying – if he has the shot to give himself a shot on Saturday, he positions himself for his first road or street course podium in 12 months. Carlos Munoz has been quiet thus far, with 14th, 12th and ninth place results for the year – Ryan Briscoe-like in terms of quiet, metronomic consistency – but hasn’t yet made many take note of his performances.
CUE THE ACRONYMS: SPM, CFH, KVSH, KVRT, RLL VYING FOR TOP-FIVES
NOLA winner James Hinchcliffe’s most notable moment at Barber came when he was stranded on course the whole race a couple years ago, and the popular “Mayor of Hinchtown” looks for something better this weekend. Teammate James Jakes needs a better weekend overall, particularly in qualifying, as he has yet to better a 19th place start thus year.
While 12th, ninth, and seventh doesn’t sound like much for Josef Newgarden to open a season, it’s been the quietly anonymous, consistent start he’s needed after struggling to open his three previous campaigns.
In 2012 (11th, 17th, 26th), 2013 (23rd, ninth, 13th) and 2014 (ninth, 19th, eighth), Newgarden has not been very quick out of the gate. He was poised to end fifth last week in Long Beach had it not been for a delay on the final pit stop sequence; fifth or better this weekend will be just the result the CFH Racing driver is looking for heading into the month of May. Teammate Luca Filippi will be learning in his first race appearance at Barber, although he’s been to the track previously for testing.
KVSH’s Sebastien Bourdais has impressed to open the year, and two top-six finishes don’t reflect his overall pace. Meanwhile teammate Stefano Coletti, of KV Racing Technology, has followed the same format of start in the back, rise forward, and fall back again in three straight races – a quiet, sensible weekend with a top-10 or 12 result would be a good one.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is another team who hasn’t yet had its results match its pace, and on a track where he does have a fourth a few years ago, Graham Rahal will look for his first top-five of the year this weekend.
THE REMAINING FIVE: IT’S PUNCH ABOVE YOUR WEIGHT TIME
Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth have the determination to succeed but thus far not the consistency. Here’s hoping they find the pace to match their pluck this weekend with A.J. Foyt Enterprises after a tough qualifying weekend in Long Beach.
Gabby Chaves should fare decently well this weekend as he looks for his first top-10 result of the year for Bryan Herta Autosport. I feel Chaves could end 10th if all the stars align, similar to where fellow rookies Tristan Vautier (2013) and Kimball (2011) ended in their first Barber starts.
Dale Coyne Racing has arguably its least distinguished lineup since any of its 2003 pairings this weekend in series debutante Rodolfo Gonzalez and Francesco Dracone in the last of his opening four-race stint. The goal for them is simple: keep it on the black stuff, and bring it home in one piece.