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).
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.