PREVIEW: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – I may have used this line last year, but the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama mirrors a Smashing Pumpkins song title: “The End Is the Beginning Is the End.”

As in, this race marks the one-quarter point of the 2016 season and it’s already the beginning of the end of the run of races this season.

Where do we turn from here in Alabama? Read on below:

2016 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama – Talking Points

Warning Signs, although INDYCAR seeks to correct it

Continuing with the theme of alt rock music references – I mean, Coca-Cola is going for music references in being on Scott Dixon’s car this weekend, too – Coldplay’s “Warning Sign” emerged as the unintentional song that fit last week’s controversial non-call on Simon Pagenaud’s exit and rejoining of the track at Long Beach.

After talking to sources this week and in reflecting on the call to only issue an Official Warning per Rule 7.10.1.1 of INDYCAR’s Penalty Guidelines, several thoughts emerged in the ‘ol noggin:

  • INDYCAR’s new look Race Control is taking time to mesh as a collective unit.
  • If INDYCAR would have called more than a warning there to Pagenaud, but allowed similar type infractions – or turns – to occur without penalty, there would have been calls of inconsistency from Race Control. It looks worse here because this was ultimately the pass for the win. Basically, Race Control lost either way.
  • Confusion arises with the terms “blend line” and “lane usage” in regards to penalties, per INDYCAR’s Penalty Guidelines sheet. A lot of folks have referred to Pagenaud’s re-entry as a blend line violation but it was deemed and called by INDYCAR as a Lane Usage, not Blend Line, infraction. Per the guidelines sheet, a Blend Line violation does not carry with it a Warning penalty, and as such, was not the Rule being observed by Race Control.
  • Warnings, however well-intended they may be in theory, are an unfortunate gray area in actuality of the rule book – simply because they’re not black and white.
  • While the warning-only call opened up a potential Pandora’s Box, rules changes released Thursday night – including an embedded electronic pit exit commit line – may prove better in digitally tracking such moves. We can only wait and see.

Here’s respective thoughts about warnings from the two protagonists – Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud – in last week’s press conference:

Said Dixon, “This one is always very clear and is always mentioned, and we have two drivers’ meetings a weekend, and it was clearly stated. I think if you look at the PDF, it’s even in the PDF view that everybody gets, and I believe in the first one on Friday, it was asked several times about that. By all means any time you could not put more than two wheels over the line, and that was my understanding. I thought we were done with warnings and all this sort of wish wash stuff and we’re going to stick to hard rules, but obviously that wasn’t the case today.”

Said Pagenaud, “They’ve done a manual that they actually sent to all the drivers, and the drivers’ association and IndyCar and the teams actually worked with IndyCar to understand what was going to be a warning, what was going to be a minimum penalty, so a warning, mid-penalty and higher penalty. Each one of those levels has a different consequence.

“You know, going into the race, I know the rule book, so I know that that line, I know you can take risks. I know you can get on the limit. It’s just racing at the end of the day, and quite frankly, like I said, another inch to the right wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the race.”

This was written before Thursday evening’s late release of a few rulebook updates – including the introduction of an electronic pit exit commit line, which has been embedded in the track surface – so hopefully the rules tweaks prevent a similar controversial situation. If Dixon winds up losing the title by 10 points or less, however, Long Beach could loom large by year’s end.

What next for Pagenaud’s strong start?

Some five years ago, a then-unheralded Pagenaud made his comeback to IndyCar in an injury fill-in role for Ana Beatriz at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, after a few years starring in sports cars with HPD/Acura and Peugeot. Pagenaud started 23rd and finished eighth on a day that turned some heads in the IndyCar paddock, in the first of three fill-in starts he’d made that season.

Flash forward to now and Pagenaud is riding the best wave of his career thus far. When he’s locked in, he can be unassailable, and combined with engineer Ben Bretzman and the rest of the No. 22 Team Penske team, he’s an even more dangerous force to be reckoned with. Second, second, first and a 14-point lead speak highly of the roll he’s on and it remains to be seen if it’ll continue this weekend.

Dixon, Ganassi seek elusive Barber win

Six starts, six podiums and zero wins is one of the strangest stats in INDYCAR – and it’s Dixon’s record here at Barber. He’ll likely be extra motivated to fix that after the Long Beach disappointment, which he still handled as diplomatically and classy as you’d expect.

Hard as it is to believe, Ganassi’s never won here either. Team Penske won the first three races here, with Andretti Autosport and CFH Racing taking the last three.

Shift to the roads

Two street courses and one short oval race are in the books for 2016 and so this weekend’s race at Barber marks the first on a permanent road course this year.

And should we expect more of the same? Perhaps, but not necessarily. In a statistical oddity, there hasn’t been a Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing win at this track since 2012. Will Power won that year from ninth and since, it’s been Ryan Hunter-Reay (2013 and 2014) and Josef Newgarden (2015) that have won the last three races.

If you’re looking outside the eight Penske and Ganassi drivers for a potential spoiler this weekend, Newgarden or Sebastien Bourdais in their respective single-car Chevrolet operations at Ed Carpenter Racing and KVSH Racing are the best bets.

Foyt, Sato look for more

A.J. Foyt Enterprises has had some decent qualifying runs at Barber before and Takuma Sato is coming in high off a strong outing in Long Beach.

Said the driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda heading into Barber: “Barber is an impressive road course that I always enjoy driving. The track has many challenging high-speed corners and it flows beautifully. I also enjoy the great support from fans who are really enthusiastic for motor racing and just the nice overall atmosphere. The museum is truly impressive, too. I look forward to being back there.”

The final word

Here’s thoughts from the defending race winner, Newgarden, who seeks his first top-five finish of the year this weekend:

“Barber, I’m excited to get back there! We’ve had a couple of good top-10 finishes these last two races, now it would be nice if we could go there and get a little bit better than that. Finally getting back on the podium or getting a win would be nice leading into the month of May. That’s our priority; we’ve got a fast car at Barber. We won there last year and we’re coming back with a great Fuzzy’s Vodka team. It’s also going to be the last race for the 100th running commemorative bottle livery, so we’ll try to send it out with a bang.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

Friday, April 22  

11:00-12:15 Practice 1 (LIVE on NBCSN)
3:00-4:15   Practice 2  

Saturday, April 23  

11:00-11:45 Practice 3 
3:00-4:15   Qualifying (LIVE on NBCSN)

Sunday, April 24  

10:30-11:00 Warm-up 
2:00        Pre-Race (LIVE on NBCSN) 
2:38/2:45   Drivers Start Your Engine/Est. Green Flag (LIVE on NBCSN)

All times local and CT.

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Josef Newgarden
2. Graham Rahal
3. Scott Dixon
4. Will Power
5. Ryan Hunter-Reay
6. Carlos Munoz
7. James Hinchcliffe
8. Sebastien Bourdais
9. Simon Pagenaud
10. Marco Andretti

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Helio Castroneves
2. Will Power
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Scott Dixon
5. Josef Newgarden
6. Tony Kanaan