By: Tanner Watkins
April 7, 2019 | 12:00 PM
Good morning race fans! Today we go green for 90 laps around the beautiful Barber Motorsports Park as the third round of the NTT IndyCar Series championship gets underway. It has already been an unpredictable weekend of action in central Alabama with and abundance of storylines on the table.
Yesterday afternoon in qualifying, 42-year-old Takuma Sato shocked the IndyCar faithful by taking his first pole since Detroit in 2017. The triumph came as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing locked out the front row with Graham Rahal qualifying second.
“This is a dream result,” said Sato. “We don’t really care which (teammate) is first; obviously, I do care that I am in front of Graham (Rahal), but this team is working so hard and sometimes a lucky break comes, but today we did everything together. This is a team effort. I’m really happy for both (of us).”
Meanwhile, both Andretti Autosport and Team Penske missed the Firestone Fast Six shootout and will be scattered throughout the middle of the starting grid. Will Power was the quickest Penske qualifier on the day in seventh, though Simon Pagenaud (starting 14th) and Josef Newgarden (starting 16th) will have a lot more cars to pass if they are going to find their way to the front.
“We gave it all we had in the Fitzgerald USA Chevrolet, but we just didn’t have enough to advance,” said a perplexed Newgarden. “We are kind of scratching our heads as to why, but we just didn’t have enough speed overall to move on.
“I have all the confidence in the world in our Team Penske guys to figure it out. This is why you have a great team. We’ll work on it and we’ll come back (for Sunday) and be ready to go in the race.”
While Penske faced their fair share of troubles, that allowed Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot to jump up and lead the Chevrolet brigade. In a top ten filled with Honda representatives, Pigot has consistently shown pace in the No. 21 ECR machine, matching his career best qualifying effort with a sixth place run yesterday.
“I am really happy with the Autogeek Chevrolet,” Pigot said post-qualifications. “We were really competitive there in the first two rounds, we were P1 and P2. In the Firestone Fast Six, we got the order wrong – we probably should have run our sticker blacks (Firestone primary tires) then our scuffed reds (Firestone alternate tires), but that’s alright. It’s a bit of data we can save for the future.
“We’re really happy to qualify up front, but also a little bit dejected to have not had more there at the end. Overall, we are coming away with a lot of positives. We are definitely looking good for (Sunday).”
Considering the fact that contenders are strewn throughout the starting order, this afternoon’s race is absolutely wide open. This is an opportunity for a team like Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to flex their muscle with a strong run, and show that the offseason investments and improvements are paying dividends.
Looking to carry that torch for SPM is veteran James Hinchcliffe. The Canadian driver has been rock-solid all weekend, qualifying fourth in the No. 5 Arrow Honda. Hinch led two of the three practice sessions and has been quickest on the combined time sheets. If it wasn’t for a slight mistake in qualifying, Hinchcliffe feels he would have had the pole.
“Fourth is the worst we’ve been all weekend, which is a crazy thing to say,” admitted Hinchcliffe. “In one sense, we’re obviously thankful for that. The Arrow car has been great right off the truck. Honestly, I feel bad for the guys because we had a really strong car and I made a mistake in that first run in (the Firestone Fast Six), and that was our better set of tires.
“We put the good ones on first and tried to just do one and done and I screwed up coming out of Turn 17. I’m going to be kicking myself on that one for a while because I know it cost us a good shot at pole.
“We can race from the second row. The Arrow guys have been great in the pits all year long, and it is a long race here at Barber. We just need to keep our heads down, be smart in the race and hopefully make up for it.”
As Hinchcliffe reported his car felt good right off of the truck, it reminded me of another driver who has been (surprisingly) pleased for the weekend’s entirety: Sebastien Bourdais. The four-time open-wheel champion actually praised his No. 18 SealMaster Honda on Friday, a display of uncharacteristic behavior for the perfectionist Frenchman.
After qualifying, Bourdais was a little more uneasy about his car’s balance, creating an interesting dynamic heading into the race.
“Overall, I’m pretty happy with fifth. I was happy the No. 18 SealMaster Honda made it into the Firestone Fast Six, but I am not happy that I couldn’t fight for the pole,” said Bourdais. “It’s been very close all weekend. The conditions changed a lot (on Saturday afternoon) and I’m just not getting a good feel for what the tires need. We’ll keep trying and see what we can come up with for the race (on Sunday).”
Considering the intriguing set of circumstances that unfolded during qualifications, look for some wild drives to the front from drivers like Patricio O’Ward (starting 18th), Felix Rosenqvist (P17), Newgarden (P16), Pagenuad (P14) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (P11).
A total of six Barber race wins will be starting outside the top ten (three for Newgarden, two for Hunter-Reay and one for Pagenaud) so the sparks should certainly fly early on.
Last year, rain was the star of the show as precipitation postponed the race’s conclusion to Monday. Even on that day, rain affected the strategy and it was Newgarden’s team led by Tim Cindric who played the game perfectly.
Today, weather shouldn’t be a factor. Temperatures should reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit with partly cloudy conditions. While rain is expected in the Birmingham area later tonight, the race should run to its conclusion without much interference.
At 12:10 PM Eastern, IndyCar teams will hit the track for one final warm-up session ahead of this afternoon’s race. The 30-minute practice will be shown live via the NBC Sports Gold IndyCar Pass as well as through the IndyCar Radio Network.
The race broadcast for today’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama will begin at 4:00 PM Eastern on NBCSN, with the green flag scheduled to wave at 4:15 PM Eastern. Timing and scoring, as well as commentary from the IndyCar Radio Network, can be found by visiting RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
Follow along during the race by joining the Open-Wheels conversation on Twitter! We will be live-tweeting during the event with insight on tire strategy, push-to-pass and more. Follow Open-Wheels on Twitter by visiting our profile page here, and while you’re at it, give our Facebook page a like as well!
Header image by Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR.