INDYCAR / Chris Owens

View from the pits: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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The spring stretch continues for the NTT IndyCar Series with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. You can watch the race today at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com or the NBC Sports App.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal start on Row 1, but arguably the bigger surprise in Saturday qualifying was Team Penske failing to make the Firestone Fast Six. As a result, the Penske trio of Will Power (starts 7th), Simon Pagenaud (starts 14th) and points leader Josef Newgarden (starts 16th) will have to rally from well within the field.

The IndyCar on NBCSN pit reporters – Marty Snider, Kelli Stavast & Kevin Lee – have their thoughts on who and what to watch in today’s 90-lap race. Read on…

MARTY SNIDER

What a strange weekend this has been at Barber Motorsports Park.  Truncated practice sessions, lots of spins and off course excursions, tires that have thrown the teams for a loop and tons of surprise names in the Firestone Fast 6 (props to RLL for locking out the front row).  All of those ingredients should make for a chaotic race on Sunday.

None of the powerhouse teams have shown that much strength this weekend.  Team Penske has been searching for something all weekend…anything.  The dominant team at Barber over the last few years has tried everything to find speed and largely, it’s still missing.  As a befuddled Josef Newgarden told me after qualifying, “We are kind of scratching our heads as to why, but we just don’t have enough speed.”  The last time Team Penske failed to put one car in the Firestone Fast 6 was Long Beach in 2014…5 years ago!  That day, they finished the race in 2nd and 4th with Will Power and Juan Montoya.  Not promising it will happen Sunday, but Team Penske should race much better than their qualifying positions of 7th, 14th and 16th.

Andretti Autosport is not much better.  “Meh,” as Alexander Rossi described the weekend. Ryan Hunter Reay said he feels like the team has actually gotten worse throughout the weekend, “We seemed to plateau from Practice 1, where we were fifth. The whole team has fallen in competitiveness as every session has gone on. So, unfortunately everyone is sitting right now in eighth, 11th and 13th. We don’t know the reason, we’re all scratching our heads.”  Frustrating.

Of the “Big 3” teams, only Ganassi was able to put a driver in the Fast 6 with Scott Dixon.  Think about that for a second.  It not only goes to show you how some of the most well funded, highly supported teams are truly searching so far this weekend…but it also shows you how competitive and tight the competition in the NTT IndyCar Series truly has become.  The top nine in qualifying were separated by about three tenths of a second over a 2.3 mile road course.  That’s a tight field.

All of that to say…what do we expect tomorrow?  To be honest, I have no idea.  

The cars are about 1.5 seconds slower than they were here last year, that is no doubt part of the set-up confusion this weekend for many teams.  The track surface is starting to wear out…which I think is fantastic and should produce tire degradation on Sunday and therefore more passing.  Plus the fact that there are a ton of usually fast cars starting out of the top 10.  All of that should equal some outstanding racing and lots of passing on a very tight circuit.

Will Power once won this race from the 9th starting position, so it can done from 7th on Sunday.  Power’s had the best car in the first two races of the season, but no wins to show for it and he still has a smile on his face.  My pick to win Sunday…Will Power.  This one is going to be fun to watch!

PS- Mr Barber.  Please do not re-pave this track after Sunday’s race like you are planning to do.  Old pavement makes for better racing.  

KELLI STAVAST

After two action-packed days of practice and qualifying, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is shaping up to be an interesting one, with some unusual suspects at or near the front of the grid.  

Spencer Pigot proved the relative speed he showed in practice (7th in combined practice times) wasn’t a fluke.  The Ed Carpenter Racing driver matched his career-best qualifying effort of 6th, advancing to the Firestone Fast Six for the first time on a road or street course.

Pigot comes to Barber Motorsports Park off a pair of 11th place finishes to open the season, but after showing flashes of brilliance throughout his career, Spencer has said he is looking for more consistency in his racing and is eager for that first win. Working in his favor this weekend: Pigot is a two-time winner on this course in the Indy Lights series, which he says gives him a level of confidence and comfort in the senior series.  

At a place where track position is key, Spencer Pigot will start with his best position of the season and will try to convert the Row 3 start into his first top-10 of the season.

KEVIN LEE

Graham Rahal has been adamant that the key to fighting for a championship starts with improving in qualifying.  He has raced well, but has often started too far back to consistently fight for wins.  For round three of the 2019 championship, mission accomplished.  The team locked out the front row at Barber with Takuma Sato winning pole and Rahal qualifying 2nd.  Sato will be looking for career win #4 while Rahal is seeking #7 and his first in almost two years.

The RLL performance was only one of the stories in a mixed up qualifying session that saw both Team Penske and Andretti Autosport miss the Firestone Fast 6.  Expect different strategies and plenty of action with strong teams racing from mid pack and several starting near the front of the grid looking for break through performances.

Ben Hanley relieved to make Indy 500 debut

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Qualifying for the Indy 500 is never an easy task, especially for a new driver and team, and with 36 cars vying for 33 starting positions last weekend, 34-year-old rookie Ben Hanley knew there was a chance he and his DragonSpeed team would not make the show.

“I wouldn’t say we were very confident, but we wanted to [make the field],” Hanley told NBC Sports. “The biggest thing we were trying to achieve was to not be on track on Sunday in the shootout because it only takes one mistake or one little issue and that’s it, you’re not in the race.”

But Hanley would not have to worry about being bumped from the field. He qualified 27th after making three attempts on Day 1, which was enough to lock the No. 81 team into the show. Not too shabby for a driver and team making only their third NTT IndyCar Series start.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

“That last run everything just came together,” Hanley said. “We trimmed out a little bit more and found a good balance of trim and grip over four [qualifying] laps and it was enough to get us through.

“It was a huge relief to get through in P27. A massive achievement for everybody involved.”

Indeed it was a massive achievement, as DragonSpeed is one of the smallest teams in the garage, with no corporate sponsors and a tiny team of around 20 personnel. Many of those were picked up by the team just a week before qualifying, when members of the team’s regular crew were denied entry into the United States due to visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Italy.

“It was all down to the team organizing some people who were in and around Indianapolis who weren’t needed for the race weekend,” Hanley said. “Obviously, I don’t think many people are going to refuse the chance to work on a car that’s trying to qualify for the 500.”

Though the team made its first Indy 500 on Day 1 of qualifying, the DragonSpeed team did not spend Saturday night out late celebrating. Instead, Hanley said the extra time was spent preparing for the race.

“We went straight on to race prep then for the car, so Sunday was a good day for the guys to take time to prep the car into the race spec and get everything sorted out in a nice, organized manner.”

Following the Indy 500, DragonSpeed will run two other races this season at Road America and Mid-Ohio. The team is hopeful that a good run at Indy will result in an opportunity to run a bigger schedule next season and attract sponsors.

Hanley stated that though he’s happy to have made the Indy 500 starting grid for the first time in his career, the magnitude of his feat hasn’t hit him yet.

“It hasn’t really soaked in yet,” he said. “I think it will soak in on Sunday when we roll out to the grid.

“It was such a huge relief to not be involved in Bump Day. Even just watching [Bump Day] it was intense, especially with the weather. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be involved in that.”

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