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.

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.