What to Watch For: IndyCar at Barber (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – IndyCar’s first permanent road course race of the season is just about to start, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

PREVIEW
QUALIFYING REPORT

Here’s what to watch for from the fourth round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season:

PAGENAUD’S ROLL, DIXON’S BARBER WAIT

The two obvious and early story lines for the race are what happens to the two protagonists from Long Beach. Does Simon Pagenaud continues his early season roll, and does Scott Dixon finally break through at Barber after six podiums, but no wins, in six starts? Pagenaud starts from pole, while Dixon starts fourth.

MONTOYA’S RUN FROM THE BACK

Starting 21st and last, Juan Pablo Montoya will be a man to watch on Sunday. Barber was a place he struggled last year and he’ll look to make some excitement happen today.

OH CAUTIONS, WHERE ART THOU

It seems crazy to suggest because generally you don’t like to see cautions, but after last week’s caution-free Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and given the physicality of these cars with this much downforce and the ridiculous cornering speeds, there’s more drivers in the field that would probably like to see a caution today than not.

Of course leave it to Sebastien Bourdais – who’s one of the sharpest minds in the field and will start fifth in his No. 11 Europa Chevrolet – to explain the randomness of when you get cautions in IndyCar.

“I think this is like so unpredictable,” he said Saturday. “Every time you think it’s going to be a crash fest, you don’t see a yellow. Every time you think it’s going to be nothing, it becomes a carnage.

“I don’t know, honestly. But I think here obviously if the tires really go bad, which has got potential with the hot temperatures and stuff tomorrow, it leads to mistakes.”

After last week’s relative dud in Long Beach, a caution or two – and a restart or two – could definitely make things more interesting here at Barber, and we’ve seen that in the additional races on the schedule thus far this weekend.

THE NEW RULES

Pit exits could be a hot topic on Sunday but the first new rule of the weekend that got implemented, an adjusted Firestone Fast 6, didn’t have much of an impact on Saturday.

Leave it to Josef Newgarden to note that they didn’t really think much about the truncated format:

“I mean, you know what’s hilarious, I totally forgot that was a thing until I got going, and then I was like, you know, it wasn’t that different,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. “I think it didn’t hurt anyone here because the red tires you have to do it on one lap, especially when they’re used. You’ve got one lap to go out and hit it.”

The transponders going in at the electronic pit exit commit line should register who exits cleanly and who doesn’t. We’re going for cleanliness.

STRATEGY PALOOZA AND TIRE WEAR

Sometimes strategy races aren’t the most interesting but sometimes they make races more interesting. Barber is a place where the latter generally applies.

I’ve dubbed my friend and colleague Steve Wittich, who writes for Trackside Online and its TSO Ladder sister brand, a bit of a “strategy snob” and I’ll bet he’ll be all over who tries to do what today, as will I.

With a 90-lap race, you can try to save like hell and make it on two stops, or more likely, try three stops to make it home. With wider windows, there are greater options. Cautions could help but even if not, there could still be some strategy plays to get higher up the field.

Even more intriguing than fuel strategy will be tire wear between Firestone’s reds and the blacks. Dixon’s strategist and Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull explains it all in one tweet, below:

ANY HONDA MOVEMENT

This follows on from the strategy subsection, but Honda teams are likely going to need to use strategy to move forward.

While at times, any of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing have impressed, Andretti Autosport has struggled mightily this weekend – not coming anywhere near the top-10.

HERE’S YOUR GRID 

More drivers starting on Firestone’s red alternate tires than not.

Houston Supercross by the numbers: Five riders begin to gap the field

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Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.

Houston Supercross numbers
Cooper Webb’s ability to close races makes him a Houston favorite. – Feld Motor Sports

Despite an accident in his heat in San Diego that sent him to the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ), Sexton recovered to score a top-five that weekend. His podium finish in Anaheim 1 and overall win last week in Anaheim 2 makes him one of the three riders with a perfect top-five record. He is joined by Cooper Webb, who finished second in the first two rounds and fourth last week, and Ken Roczen, whose consistency in the first three races contributed to him grabbing the top spot in this week’s NBC Supercross Power Rankings.

There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.

Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.

Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.

By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.

With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.

This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit.

Jim Pomeroy won the first race in the Astrodome during the inaugural season of 1974 on a 250, which was the premiere class at the time. Houston was one of three races held that year along with events at Daytona International Speedway and the Los Angeles Coliseum. All three venues return in 2023 with the first SuperMotocross championship finale returning to the famed LA Coliseum in September.

Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.

Two privateers have started the season on a high note.

Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.

Michael Mosiman scored his first 250 win last year in San Diego. – Feld Motor Sports

The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.

Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.

In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.

The other 250 riders with 2022 wins this week are Mosiman, who earned his first Supercross win last year in San Diego, and Nate Thrasher, who became the fifth new class winner at Daytona.

Jeremy Martin will attempt to extend a record this week in Houston. His division leading SuperMotocross podiums number 65. He has 26 wins in the combined sessions, which ranks fourth all time.

Last Five Houston Winners

450s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Cooper Webb
2021, Race 2: Eli Tomac
2021, Race 1: Justin Barcia
2020, no race
2019, Cooper Webb
2018, Jason Anderson

250s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Colt Nichols
2021, Race 2: Jett Lawrence
2021, Race 1: Christian Craig
2020, no race
2019, Dylan Ferrandis
2018, Aaron Plessinger

By the Numbers

Anaheim 2
San Diego

More SuperMotocross coverage

Supercross unveils 16th edition of a Ricky Carmichael designed Daytona track
Power Rankings after week 3
Malcom Stewart out for “extended duration” after knee surgery
Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX
Chase Sexton wins Anaheim 2 in 450s; Levi Kitchen takes 250s
Results and points from Anaheim 2