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.

Rossi remains “The Story” in INDYCAR in 2019

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly-timed move to race side-by-side with Herta going into Turn 1. By Turn 2 of the first lap of the race, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing missing from deeming Rossi’s race complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pits stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by one-full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished third three of the four times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the frontstraight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle, but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash just as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution. Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816-of-a-second behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he was never challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBC Sports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties like with Honda. Both him and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBC Sports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there, I think we’re getting there,” Andretti said. “We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that. After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500? In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races 10 years from now and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, that is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist. Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”