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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

NHRA Bristol: Schumacher, Capps, Coughlin Jr. take home wins

Tony Schumacher, from left, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Ron Capps. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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You’ve heard of classic rock, right?

Well, Sunday’s 18th annual Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol (Tennessee) Dragway was classic drag racing – old school style, you might say.

Drivers who have combined for 14 national championships between them emerged at the top of the heap, with eight-time champ Tony Schumacher taking Top Fuel honors, former champ Ron Capps took Funny Car honors and five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. grabbing Pro Stock honors.

In Top Fuel, Schumacher earned his sixth career win at Thunder Valley, as well as his first win overall of 2018.

Known as “The Sarge” due to his U.S. Army sponsorship, Schumacher marched through the field to reach the Winner’s Circle.

Schumacher (3.946 seconds at 313.58 mph) defeated Mike Salinas in what would prove to be Schumacher’s third final round of the season and the 150th of his career.

He now is 6-2 in career final round showings at Thunder Valley.

“We have had little things bite us this season, but we knew we had to overcome adversity and we knew we had a great car that was capable of winning,” Schumacher said. “I’m proud of my team for sticking to our plan, and I know our team is going to be a factor for the rest of the season.”

Schumacher was the No. 2 qualifier in the race and defeated Terry McMillen, Pat Dakin, points leader Steve Torrence and Salinas to take the win.

It was the first runner-up finish of Salinas’ career, defeating Leah Pritchett, No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican and Scott Palmer before meeting Schumacher in the final.

In Funny Car, like Schumacher, Capps won for the first time this season on the NHRA national event circuit. It was also his second consecutive win at Bristol, having won last year’s event there.

Capps earned the 59th win of his career with a pass of 4.234 seconds at 296.37 mph, defeating Bob Tasca III.

Capps also earned Don Schumacher his 300th career nitro victory as a team owner.

“This is a great facility, and when you roll into this place you get a special feeling,” Capps said. “Getting to the Winner’s Circle at a track like this is even more special because you feel like you really had to earn it, and this weekend I am proud of what my team accomplished in some tough conditions.”

Capps went to the top of the Funny Car mountain starting from the No. 11 qualifying position, defeating 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, 2017 Funny Car national champ Robert and J.R. Todd before defeating Tasca in the final round.

Capps qualified 11th for the event before defeating John Force, defending Funny Car world champion Robert Hight and J.R. Todd on his path to Winner’s Circle.

Tasca was the No. 4 qualifier and defeated Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and points leader Courtney Force to reach his first final round since at Seattle in 2013.

In Pro Stock, Coughlin earned his second win in the last three races. It took an effort of 6.709 seconds at 205.10 mph to defeat points leader Greg Anderson in the final round.

“My team has made some transitions this season and now we are running much faster, and it feels pretty great to be on the right track now this season,” Coughlin Jr. said. “Winning at Thunder Valley is historic and it feels fantastic, so to be crowned a champion here is really special.”

Coughlin qualified No. 2 and beat Tommy Lee, Chris McGaha and Drew Skillman en route to overtaking Anderson in the final round.

Anderson now has two runner-up finishes this season, but continues to seek his first win of 2018.

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule moves on to its 12th race of the season – the halfway mark of the 2018 campaign – next weekend at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, from June 21-24.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Tony Schumacher; 2. Mike Salinas; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Scott Palmer; 5. Pat Dakin; 6. Doug Kalitta; 7. Antron Brown; 8. Clay Millican; 9. Brittany Force; 10. Leah Pritchett; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Richie Crampton; 13. Dom Lagana; 14. Bill Litton; 15. Terry Totten; 16. Terry McMillen.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. Courtney Force; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. Robert Hight; 6. Jack Beckman; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 8. Cruz Pedregon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Del Worsham; 11. Jonnie Lindberg; 12. Shawn Langdon; 13. Jim Campbell; 14. Matt Hagan; 15. John Force; 16. Jeff Diehl.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jeg Coughlin; 2. Greg Anderson; 3. Tanner Gray; 4. Drew Skillman; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Tim Freeman; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Jason Line; 10. Bo Butner; 11. Alex Laughlin; 12. John Gaydosh Jr.; 13. Wally Stroupe; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Deric Kramer; 16. Tommy Lee.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Tony Schumacher, 3.946 seconds, 313.58 mph def. Mike Salinas, 5.251 seconds, 152.18 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.234, 296.37 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: Jeg Coughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.709, 205.10 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.741, 205.07.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Mike Salinas, 4.023, 295.53 def. Leah Pritchett, 4.011, 287.72; Scott Palmer, 4.017, 304.39 def. Bill Litton, 4.172, 261.07; Clay Millican, 4.018, 295.14 def. Terry Totten, 4.542, 182.58; Tony Schumacher, 3.917, 316.82 def. Terry McMillen, 5.112, 141.40; Antron Brown, 3.897, 316.82 def. Richie Crampton, 4.057, 297.22; Doug Kalitta, 3.998, 286.38 def. Brittany Force, 3.942, 307.51; Steve Torrence, 3.970, 303.71 def. Shawn Reed, 4.018, 283.25; Pat Dakin, 4.015, 307.30 def. Dom Lagana, 4.107, 272.12; QUARTERFINALS — Salinas, 4.035, 299.20 def. Millican, 9.938, 76.57; Palmer, 4.067, 302.41 def. Kalitta, 4.292, 230.92; Schumacher, 4.028, 288.64 def. Dakin, 4.041, 298.14; Torrence, 4.232, 253.33 def. Brown, 5.090, 155.65; SEMIFINALS — Salinas, 4.042, 301.07 def. Palmer, 4.356, 211.89; Schumacher, 4.038, 297.02 def. Torrence, 4.104, 254.04; FINAL — Schumacher, 3.946, 313.58 def. Salinas, 5.251, 152.18.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.757, 227.23 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 5.978, 124.51; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.169, 307.65 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.382, 262.18; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.213, 300.26 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.362, 252.61; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.133, 303.09 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.183, 289.82; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.582, 229.00 def. Jim Campbell, Dodge Charger, 5.030, 159.02; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.243, 296.37 def. John Force, Camaro, 5.824, 128.57; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.283, 281.30 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.569, 266.37; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.253, 291.26 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 5.381, 142.06; QUARTERFINALS — C. Force, 4.197, 298.14 def. Johnson Jr., 5.139, 158.45; Tasca III, 4.233, 292.90 def. Pedregon, 5.757, 126.33; Todd, 4.203, 295.92 def. Beckman, 4.333, 277.49; Capps, 4.208, 299.33 def. Hight, 4.233, 300.73; SEMIFINALS — Capps, 4.242, 298.93 def. Todd, 4.372, 285.65; Tasca III, 4.219, 298.60 def. C. Force, 4.271, 286.62; FINAL — Capps, 4.234, 296.37 def. Tasca III, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Vincent Nobile, Chevy Camaro, 6.739, 204.45 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.776, 204.45; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.736, 205.32 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.729, 204.88 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.726, 203.95; Tim Freeman, Camaro, 6.787, 202.58 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.823, 201.94; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.754, 205.13 def. John Gaydosh Jr., Chevrolet Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.715, 204.23 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 9.845, 93.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.716, 204.35 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 7.027, 176.70; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.719, 205.10 def. Tommy Lee, Camaro, Broke – No Show; QUARTERFINALS — Gray, 6.789, 204.94 def. Freeman, Foul – Red Light; Coughlin, 6.740, 205.26 def. McGaha, 16.733, 48.09; Anderson, 6.723, 204.73 def. Nobile, 6.755, 204.29; Skillman, 6.727, 203.98 def. Enders, 6.743, 204.54; SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.750, 204.51 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; Anderson, 6.768, 204.91 def. Gray, 6.764, 205.19; FINAL — Coughlin, 6.709, 205.10 def. Anderson, 6.741, 205.07.

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UPDATED POINTS STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 896; 2. Clay Millican, 786; 3. Tony Schumacher, 760; 4. Doug Kalitta, 717; 5. Leah Pritchett, 663; 6. Antron Brown, 588; 7. (tie) Brittany Force, 552; Terry McMillen, 552; 9. Scott Palmer, 461; 10. Mike Salinas, 421.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 937; 2. Jack Beckman, 736; 3. Robert Hight, 717; 4. J.R. Todd, 694; 5. Ron Capps, 693; 6. Matt Hagan, 669; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 606; 8. Cruz Pedregon, 508; 9. John Force, 502; 10. Bob Tasca III, 500.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 823; 2. Tanner Gray, 768; 3. Vincent Nobile, 758; 4. Erica Enders, 738; 5. Drew Skillman, 679; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 671; 7. Chris McGaha, 659; 8. Bo Butner, 642; 9. Deric Kramer, 627; 10. Jason Line, 569.

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