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.

Report: Spencer Pigot out at Ed Carpenter Racing

Joe Skibinski / IndyCar
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Spencer Pigot will not return to Ed Carpenter Racing in 2020, according to a story Thursday by RACER.com.

The 26-year-old Floridian, who won the 2015 Indy Lights championship, is expected to be replaced in the No. 21 Chevrolet by 2019 Indy Lights runner-up Rinus VeeKay.

“I’m appreciative of the opportunity ECR gave me,” Pigot told RACER.com. “I understand the reasons they had to go in a different direction, and wish them all the best.”

In 56 NTT IndyCar Series starts, Pigot has 15 top 10 finishes, with a best finish of second at Iowa in 2018. He finished 14th in the 2019 point standings.

VeeKay, who tested in an Indy car twice for ECR in 2019, has six wins in 18 Indy Lights starts, including a weekend sweep of the final two rounds of the season at Laguna Seca in September.

A representative from ECR told NBC Sports Thursday that the team currently could not comment on any driver rumors as the team currently does not have any drivers under contract for the 2020 season, although it is presumed that owner/driver Carpenter will return to the No. 20 entry for the oval rounds.

NBC Sports will provide updates on the story once more information becomes available.