DiZinno: Barber, IndyCar’s southern gem, delivers an instant classic

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Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. was just what the doctor ordered for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

OK, so it wasn’t a cure-all and a single magic tonic to remove all issues in the series, not the least of which has been a brutal opening four-race in five-weekend, cross-country start to the season before prepping the cars over to the new superspeedway oval aero kit package ahead of this weekend’s test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But after two ragged races to open the year, and one better than normal street race at Long Beach, Barber showcased the best of IndyCar in all formats.

Here’s what was on display Sunday at Barber:

PASSING GALORE

Between the three-in-one opening lap move by Josef Newgarden, any of Graham Rahal’s moves, some excellent outside passes by Marco Andretti and Stefano Coletti, or others throughout the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, there was no shortage of passing during the 90-lap race.

Some of that owed to bravery and some to high tire degradation of Firestone’s red alternate compounds, which made this race, like 2012, an awesome one to watch. Kudos to Firestone for enough of a gap between the reds and the blacks.

VARYING STRATEGIES

Between the two different strategies that were playing out, especially towards the finish when it was slightly unclear whether Newgarden or the master of fuel saving, Scott Dixon, would make it home, it was great to see these two in their element. Newgarden was attempting to hang on for his first win, and Dixon enjoyed a built-in one-lap advantage set to capitalize if need be.

All the while Rahal was driving like a man possessed, with some great moves including one on Dixon for second in the last lap as he gained a staggering 1.5 to 2 seconds per lap in the final stint. He put on a show that was reminiscent of some of his great drives in the past, which have been all too infrequent the last few years.

A MINI HONDA RESURGENCE, AND A HUGE HONDA PRESENCE

On-track, Honda teams enjoyed their best race of the season and best performance levels, notably from Rahal and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe, who was unlucky to finish just seventh. With Andretti Autosport’s trio in the top-10, Honda had a season-best five of the top-10 finishers, one better than the four they had at NOLA.

This being a Honda-sponsored race, the activation level was significant too throughout the weekend. As the company heads toward making a decision on its future participation in the championship, seeing Honda – in all its elements of a race weekend – have a good weekend was a very positive sign.

CLEAN AND GREEN

Save for a couple moments of contact, the field of 23 put on the race without any major dramas or incidents. It was the second consecutive low-caution race, with two flying for nine laps on Sunday. It was also the second consecutive race where all 23 drivers finished, owing to their cleanliness and the reliability of both Honda and Chevrolet during the race.

THE GORGEOUS FACILITY LINE, ONCE MORE

Both on TV and in person, Barber Motorsports Park remains an immaculate facility – no stone is left unturned in ensuring its presence as one of the best circuits in North America. In six years, IndyCar has established a foothold in what should have been an unlikely place, and while the fan numbers aren’t as huge as in Long Beach, there’s still a distinct enough presence around the grounds to make it feel like a big deal. Chamber of Commerce weather, certainly on Sunday, also paid dividends. Barber isn’t mentioned – yet – among the best races on the calendar every year, but given the facility and level of racing we saw Sunday, it should be.

A POPULAR FIRST-TIME WINNER

There’s no need to spend too many more words beyond what we wrote on Sunday about what Josef Newgarden’s elusive, overdue first career win means to the sport. Think pieces are out and available for that. If all the stars align, this should be the first of many wins for the popular driver who has worked a long time for this opportunity, will promote IndyCar at every turn, has grown as a driver over four years, is so well-spoken and has the maturity level beyond his years.