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PREVIEW: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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Heading into the third round of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 2017 season at Barber Motorsports Park, we totally expected to come to the first Honda-sponsored race of the season with Sebastien Bourdais (Dale Coyne Racing) and James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) having won the first two races of the year for Honda and Bourdais and Coyne leading the standings by 19 points.

Just like we expected the Chicago Cubs to win last year’s World Series, Donald Trump to become the 45th U.S. President and Fernando Alonso to willingly choose to run the 101st Indianapolis 500 over the Monaco Grand Prix.

Riiiiight.

So since the form book has been thrown out, writing these previews is a proper crapshoot because the unexpected is the normal, and the past offers no indication of the present. But we try anyway.

With that as a lead-in, here’s some talking points for the “Alabama roller coaster” this weekend (TV times):

2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama – Talking Points

Honda’s quest for the road and street three-peat

It seems longer than the last stretch of 2015 that Honda won three races in a row. But it did when Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal pulled this off at Iowa, Mid-Ohio and Pocono in 2015. However Honda hasn’t pulled this off on three straight road and street circuits since 2013, when Scott Dixon swept the Toronto races and Charlie Kimball won his first and thus far only victory at Mid-Ohio. That seems a lifetime ago!

Quite how well Honda’s power delivery improvements have been on the permanent road courses will determine whether a three-peat happens on this occasion. Some good tests have occurred at Sonoma and Barber previously, and Max Chilton was about to lead the Barber open test last month before Will Power pipped him on the last lap.

Again by strength in numbers, the odds say Honda should be able to get at least half its 13 cars through to Q2 in qualifying and another three or four into the Firestone Fast Six. From there, another win would be possible.

Penske’s Power outage… 

A mechanical issue at St. Petersburg from another pole and contact with Kimball at Long Beach leaves Will Power languishing in a three-way tie for 17th in points with Alexander Rossi and Max Chilton. At only six points back of 10th-placed Marco Andretti though, a win would go a long way towards moving him up the food chain much sooner than he did last year, when he hit his midseason stride.

Power just needs a drama-free weekend, something that has escaped him since his win at Pocono last August. He struggled to eighth at Texas in the resumption, had contact with Kimball at Watkins Glen, had mechanicals at Sonoma to end 2016 and St. Petersburg to start 2017, and then the Long Beach incident last weekend.

Andretti’s Southern redemption?

At a track Andretti Autosport has won at before, when Ryan Hunter-Reay went back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, the team is desperate to bounce back from its nightmare end to Long Beach as all four cars suffered either mechanical or electrical woes.

Hunter-Reay is due a win – he hasn’t won since Pocono 2015 which meant he hasn’t properly been able to celebrate one since his win prior to that in Iowa earlier that year – while Marco Andretti has run well at Barber in the past. Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi should fare well here too; Rossi has the race-winning engineer in his camp that propelled Newgarden to victory here two years ago in Jeremy Milless.

Lingering questions

  • What does Scott Dixon have to do to translate his pace, and his Barber podium success, into a win?
  • Can Simon Pagenaud continue his quiet, stealthy title defense?
  • Can Graham Rahal go one step higher after tough runner-up finishes here the last two years?
  • Will Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing be able to lead the points for a third straight race?
  • Can Charlie Kimball, who’s done well at Barber before, break his unfortunate recent string of contact?
  • Do one of the “big three” teams finally get on the board or do the other five teams continue their roll?
  • Will it rain? How will the temperature swings of 90-plus ambient on Friday compare to the mid-60s expected on Sunday?

The Barber of Oviedo, España

That’s a clever subhead for saying that Oviedo, Spain’s Fernando Alonso’s first appearance in an IndyCar paddock will be at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. You couldn’t ask for two worlds further apart.

Will Alonso dominate all the headlines this weekend as he makes his first guest appearance with the Andretti Autosport team? Will Barber give him a proper taste of the IndyCar world? Will he make his maiden voyage to Rusty’s BBQ?

These, and other questions, will be answered from the time “Places Alonso Would Rather Be” actually moves to an IndyCar race, away from an F1 Grand Prix.

Meanwhile, about the other three rookies in this year’s Indy 500…

Seems hard to imagine the words Alonso and rookie in the same sentence but they’re real. Lest he be the only rookie in the field though it’s worth noting all of his compatriots will be on hand this weekend.

Zach Veach makes a surprise debut in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing as injury fill-in for JR Hildebrand. Ed Jones, the lone full-season rookie, goes for his third straight top-10 out of the gate in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. And Jack Harvey, Andretti’s other rookie, will be present coaching Neil Alberico in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires with Carlin.

An idea? Have the three Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires graduates make T-shirts that say “also a rookie in this year’s Indianapolis 500,” and debut them this weekend.

Rubber variation de jour

This will be an interesting weekend from a tire standpoint. A lot of times IndyCar shares weekends with a sports car series, it’s the Pirelli World Challenge. But Pirelli World Challenge has opted out of a return to Barber this year, instead focusing its efforts on its own headliner next weekend at Virginia International Raceway.

In its place, two sports car championships from IMSA come to the track in the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda and Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA Presented by Yokohama, as does the Andersen Promotions-operated Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires.

So what this means is besides Firestone for IndyCar, there’s also Cooper (Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires), Continental (Prototype Challenge), Yokohama (Porsche) and BFGoodrich (MX-5) rubber being laid down this weekend on a high-grip track. And if it rains, then all the rubber gets washed away and we start from scratch.

The final word

From Sebastien Bourdais, the Frenchman who’s the points leader on this occasion: “Barber is a very demanding track both technically and physically. There are very long corners that are physically demanding. It might not be the most difficult circuit technically, but what makes it difficult is trying to find the right setup on the car. That’s the true test of Barber Motorsports Park. The corners are so long it kind of resembles an oval, where the quality of the car is what makes the difference on the timing sheet. To be able to put in a good time at Barber, your car needs to do what you ask it to.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local/CT):

Friday, April 21
10:45-11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
2:25-3:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

Saturday, April 22
11-11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
3:15 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series knockout qualifications), NBCSN (telecast starts at 3:30 p.m.)

Sunday, April 23
9:45-10:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warm-up, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
2 p.m. – Driver Introductions
2 p.m. – NBCSN on air
2:35 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines” command
2:42 p.m. – Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (90 laps/207 miles), NBCSN (live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Graham Rahal
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Will Power
5. Juan Pablo Montoya
6. James Hinchcliffe
7. Helio Castroneves
8. Tony Kanaan
9. Charlie Kimball
10. Scott Dixon

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Will Power
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Scott Dixon
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. Graham Rahal

Cooper Webb leaps from obscurity to Supercross lead

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Cooper Webb could not even locate the radar tower before the 2019 season began – let alone expect to see his number dead center in the radar screen.

His ascent to 450 competition came with little fanfare. Finishing 13th in Supercross in 2017 and then eighth in Motocross, Webb did not turn many heads as a rookie. Last year was more of the same.

Through Round 7 at Arlington, Webb failed to record a single top five. That elusive result would come the following week at Tampa with a fourth-place finish. Two weeks later, he stood on the podium at Daytona for the only the second time in his Supercross 450s career. But at season’s end, Webb was only ninth in the standings in both Supercross and Motocross.

No one expected much from him when Anaheim rolled around this year.

Webb started the season much the same as he ended 2018. A fifth-place finish in Anaheim I in muddy and equalizing conditions was followed by a modest 10th at Glendale, but the rider from North Carolina believed in himself.

In professional racing, nothing is more difficult than winning the first race. Webb’s first taste of victory came in Heat 1 of the Triple Crown at Anaheim II. Everyone remained skeptical – it was only one heat race after all. The skepticism turned to interest when he won Heat 2. Then Webb finished third in Heat 3 to take the overall victory. It was his first win in the 450 class.

That was all it took to unleash his potential. Webb won the following week in Oakland and then again two weeks later in Minneapolis.

The Supercross riders left Minnesota and headed straight down Interstate 35 to Arlington with four of them separated by two points. All eyes were focused on Ken Roczen, Eli Tomac, Marvin Musquin – and, oh yeah Webb who sat in second.

Someone was likely to stumble in Arlington and the odds on favorite to do so was Webb. That seemed to be confirmed once the feature started. While the three more experienced riders led by Tomac scooted away from the field, Webb was mired outside the top five for the first six lap.

It was Tomac who tripped and fell, however. Webb passed the stricken rider and surged to fifth on Lap 7. He was in fourth by Lap 10 and third on Lap 16.  As Webb and teammate Musquin battled for the second, they slowly reeled in the leader Roczen. Once Webb broke free on the conflict with the runner-up position firmly his, he could see the red plate on Roczen’s Honda like a cape being waved in front of a bull.

Webb charged through the final six laps getting closer and closer until he edged Roczen for the closest finish in Supercross history. It was Webb’s fourth victory of the season, coming only four weeks after he scored his first career win.

Relive the final laps in the video posted above.

As incredible as Webb’s rise to the points lead is, it has been done before.

Last year Jason Anderson seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the standings after Round 2. Anderson held the advantage for the remainder of the year, while Webb has been part of a game of hot potato in which no one seems to want to don the red plate for more than a week.

The pressure continues to mount. Webb now has a two-point advantage over Roczen, who is the only rider to sweep the top five this season.

Webb’s advantage over third is a mere four points, while Musquin has a current five-race streak of podium finishes to his credit.

Tomac’s trouble in Texas serves as a cautionary tale that a single loss of focus can be devastating and Webb still lacks the seat time of his three principal rivals, but last week’s incredible come-from-behind victory is showing that Webb is riding above experience level.

Follow the complete Supercross and Motocross seasons on NBC Sports, Gold.