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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.

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.