After what some racing experts called a lackluster event that ended in controversy this past weekend at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the teams of the Verizon IndyCar Series make a near coast to coast trip to the state of Alabama and one of the more daunting challenges in terms of road racing that the circuit currently has to offer. The smooth, yet hilly design of the 15 turn, 2.38 mile Barber Motorsports Park, host of Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama, will put every skill that even the most highly advanced road racer has to the ultimate test. However, despite the circuit being one of the most impressive examples of modern race circuit design in the United States, the layout is not as friendly in terms of the ability to overtake. Although there are several short straights on the docket per lap, outside of the tight hairpin at Charlotte’s Web (turn five), the chances to overtake are limited to the most aggressive of maneuvers and uses of the push to pass system. With those concerns on the table, qualifying in the Firestone Fast Six may be required to have a realistic chance at finding the winner’s circle on Sunday. However, if one is to score from outside the first three rows of the starting grid, full course cautions must manifest themselves to allow alternate pit strategies on race day to flourish.
A perfect example of a plan b attack going awry last week was in the case of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Charlie Kimball, who pitted early on lap six of the 80-lap event at Long Beach and yet despite having one of the fastest cars on the track, the caution-free nature of Sunday’s race prevented him from fully sneaking into the picture upfront, save for two very brief stays in the lead before being forced to pit for fuel and tires. If things go in the same form with a lack of stoppages, someone like Kimball who errs in qualifying phase one or two on Saturday could suffer a similar fate.
Then of course, there is the other player in the controversy last week, the decision by the chief steward of INDYCAR Dan Davis not to issue drive through penalties for drivers cutting across the pit exit blend line. The pit exit at Barber Motorsports Park features a similar design to the one featured at Long Beach, where the urge to cut off the blend line could be in play yet again. If indeed the urge overwhelms drivers again on Sunday, the question is will Davis chomp down harder in terms of penalties? If so, the role of nailing the lap(s) before making a green flag stop will be paramount.
Team Penske’s Will Power is a master at this, as is Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, who might have parlayed that into a win last Sunday if not for the incident with Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud that of course caused the majority of the gripes. As for potential winners for Sunday’s last run before the Verizon IndyCar Series teams and drivers return to home base for the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the two so-called victims of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the aforementioned Dixon and Pagenaud’s Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves must be featured close to the top of it. Dixon and many others in the paddock at Long Beach strongly felt the New Zealander was denied a win by the rule book interpretation and not winning there might have lit a fire under the man known as the Iceman. As for Castroneves, a climbing of the catch fence during post race, could also be in the cards for Sunday as the Brazilian dominated the first three-quarters of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, before being outgunned at the penultimate section of the race during the final round of green flag pit stops. Of course, Pagenaud could also be motivated to prove last week was not simply an “I got away with one” moment either. The Frenchman has started the 2016 season with a second-second-first stat card in the first three rounds. Only Bobby Rahal in 1991, has entered the month of May with that strong of an early season push heading for the Brickyard.
After coming away empty handed late in the going at Long Beach, Helio Castroneves puts together a complete performance in Alabama to claim the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama and maybe some extra energy in his quest to join open wheel legends AJ Foyt, Rick Mears, and Al Unser, Sr. as a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 next month.