Live Blog – Barber Day 3

7:20 PM – And that, my friends, is why nobody asks me to be the IndyCar race psychic.  The only thing I got right in my pre-race predictions was that Scott Dixon would end up on the podium.  Otherwise, I was pretty wrong on every front.  Go figure.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Takuma Sato dominated the 90-lap feature event, essentially leading wire-to-wire, surrendering the lead only for a handful of laps during pit stops.  It was Taku’s fourth career IndyCar win and his second win with RLL in the past two seasons.

The news wasn’t nearly as positive for Sato’s teammate, Graham Rahal, who experienced throttle problems during his first pit stop and was essentially eliminated from the race.

I mentioned earlier that a Top 5 for any of the Penske guys would feel like a win on this difficult weekend, so the boys on the #2 car of Josef Newgarden must feel quite happy about his fourth-place finish.  Newgarden had one of the fastest cars midrace and drove his butt off to improve 12 spots from his 16th-place starting position.

Both of his Penske teammates had strong runs going at various points of the race, but neither was able to seal the deal with a very strong finish.  They battled each other for a while and eventually battled themselves right out of the Top 10.  Power spinning out in Turn 16 didn’t help his forward progress, either.

The race weekend should be considered a great showing for the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Racing teammates of James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson.  They might not throw a party for their sixth and seventh place finishes, but Hinchcliffe was fast in several sessions, and both cars escaped the weekend mostly unscathed.  If nothing else, hopefully this weekend will be a good springboard to continued success at Long Beach and the IMS Road Course.

The news wasn’t nearly so good for Ed Carpenter Racing.  Spencer Pigot was on his way to backing up his sixth-place starting position, running a strong first half of the race while committing to a two-stop strategy.  Unfortunately his strategy was thwarted by the one mid-race caution.  It went from bad to worse when he was penalized for an unsafe pit release and ordered to start at the rear of the field.  Pigot was never able to recover and came home a disappointing 17th.

Ed Jones will probably be glad to be driving away from Barber Motorsports Park tonight after an all around disappointing weekend.  Jones never showed much speed in practice and only appeared to find speed when he jumped the initial start of the race, moving from 21st to about 4th before crossing the start/finish line.  Race control didn’t approve of the premature start and brought the third-year driver through the pits for a drive-through penalty.  After that, it was mostly a test session for Jones, who eventually came home 19th.

Sebastien Bourdais proved once again why he should be considered still among IndyCar’s elite, even at 40 years old.  The Frenchman committed early to a two-stop strategy and had to nurse his scuffed alternate tires 28 grueling laps before his first pit stop.  Bourdais was able to close on Dixon several times over the final 10 laps, but each time he did, his car lost all front end grip.  I actually road the elevator down at the hotel this morning with Bourdais’s engineer, Craig Hampson, who said they had an even better car than they showed in qualifying.  It would have been interesting to see if Bourdais’ two-stop strategy would have played out even better without the mid-race yellow flag.  But we’ll never know.  Nonetheless, a third-place finish was a great result for the scrappy, Illinois-based team.

I was really surprised that the race only had one caution and that didn’t come until Lap 58.  While the practice sessions were riddled throughout with cars finding the gravel pits, the drivers nearly unanimously kept their cars on track and drove smart races.  There were many close passes in Turn 5 and 6, and while a couple cars got pushed into the grass (Tony Kanaan being one I specifically remember), all the drivers drove professionally and respectfully without hip checking each other off track.

Scott Dixon made several mentions in his post-race comments about how much slower and more difficult the track was this year compared to previous years.  When his team tested here last fall, they were able to easily break into the 67-second time bracket.  However, upon return this year, very few teams were able to get into the 68-second range, even on the softer, alternate tires.  Nobody seems quite sure where the speed went, and Dixie doesn’t think it is necessary related to the track surface that is set to be repaved immediately following this race.  Firestone did admit that some of the red tires used on Friday were from last year’s production batch, but all the Reds since Saturday have been from this year’s productions.  It’s a mystery where the speed went.  While the one-second differential was not apparent to me watching the cars on track, it did seem that the lack of performance led to fewer racing moments as drivers just weren’t able to get close and complete passes, especially on guys that were nearly as quick.  Firestone always does a spectacular job with its IndyCar tires, and I have no doubt they’ll come back stronger in future years.

As I can feel the glare of George and knowing that he is ready to hit that road, that’s going to be a wrap for tonight.  All in all it was a very enjoyable weekend, so kudos to the wonderful staff at Barber Motorsports Park for putting on another fantastic event.  I definitely looking forward to returning in future years!

I’ll post a link to a gallery of race images tomorrow.  As always, thank you very much for following along!

 

2:00 PM – As has been the case for this entire weekend, the final warmup session before this afternoon’s NTT IndyCar Series race seems to offer little consistency with other practice sessions and leaves race prognosticators clueless on how the race will play out.

Graham Rahal backed up his strong qualifying effort by leading the session, but pole sitter Takuma Sato could do no better than eighth fastest.  Other drivers from yesterday’s Fast 6 qualifying were 13th (Dixon), 14th (Hinchcliffe), 18th (Bourdais), and 19th (Pigot).

Not surprisingly, Andretti Autosport bounced back strongly by putting all four of its drivers (all five if you include Colton Herta) in the Top 11, paced by Alexander Rossi as second quickest.

Zach Veach continued his tough weekend by spinning his car in Turn 16 and bringing out the red flag.  It wasn’t all bad news for the young Ohioan, however, as he was able to post the fifth fastest time of the session.  Starting at the back of the field will make for a very long day, but with a little help from strategy and well-time yellow flags, Zeach could be strong today if he can get to the front and avoid mistakes that keep him from finishing.

For a while, it looked like Team Penske had finally cut the sandbags loose when they were running third, fourth, and fifth at the midpoint of the practice.  When the checkered flag flew, though, only Josef Newgarden was able to post a good speed as he ended up third on the time sheet.  Simon Pagenaud was fast enough for tenth, and Will Power finished a disappointing 15th.  I still expect them to find speed or use strategy to post good finishes, but at this point, it seems like a Top 5 for any of the Team Penske guys will have to feel like a win for that team.

Matheus Leist had a nice session as the second fastest Chevrolet and coming back ninth, just ahead of Pagenaud.  The Foyt team, however, continues to struggle this weekend as Tony Kanaan could do no better than 22nd.

So how do I see the race playing out today?  In a word – chaotic.  With the jumbled starting grid that sees several fast drivers – particularly those of the Andretti Autosport camp – starting mid-pack, I expect to see several drivers trying to make moves early on in the race while the field is still bunched together.  When aggression happens, cars come together.  When cars come together and yellow flags fly, strategies get shuffled and the leaderboard gets messy.

Given all that, I still expect to see the fast guys come through.  For those playing IndyCar Fantasy and stuck to a $100 maximum limit, here is your “Kiss of Death” Fantasy picks for today:

  • Scott Dixon ($30) – The streak of podium finishes will continue today.  He may not finally get to the top step (although nobody should ever be surprised if he does), but I don’t see Scott faltering and having a disastrous race.  If ever there is a safe pick for a race, it’s Dixon, even at $30.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay ($28) – Hunter-Reay always runs well on natural-terrain road courses, and RHR is a former winner at this track.  Andretti Autosport seems to really be on top of their game this weekend, so you have to pick at least one of them.  Quite honestly, it might be a toss-up between RHR and Alexander Rossi, but you can save $2 on your pick by going with RHR.
  • Spencer Pigot ($21) – This is your sleeper pick for the race.  Chevrolet should be able to come up with at least one strong finish, and with Team Penske struggling throughout the weekend, the burden falls to Ed Carpenter Racing for a good result.  Spencer has been fast most of the weekend even though he struggled in morning warmup.  If ECR can somehow manage to avoid the cartoon anvils that seem to plague them on a regular basis, Pigot should be able to translate a strong qualifying effort into a good result.
  • Patricio O’Ward ($18) – At only $18, it’s almost a crime not to put O’Ward in your foursome.  He struggled in qualifying yesterday and will start 18th this afternoon, and he didn’t run particularly strong in warmup this session.  However, O’Ward looked good in earlier practices and could move up through the field.  Finding the podium is unlikely for the Carlin Motorsport driver, but a solid finish in the second five positions is possible.  At only $18, a seventh or eighth place finish will serve you well.

I just had a chance to look at the radar, and it looks like we should be alright for getting the race run in dry conditions.  There are substantial rains over Central Mississippi, but those are moving northeast and should not present any issues for the rest of the day here in Alabama.  Clouds have increased in the last couple hours, so most of the blue skies have been covered.  However, the sun continues to peak in and out between the clouds.  The wind continues to come from the south, which at this track is from Turns 10/11 toward the Start/Finish line.  I’m not sure it will be much of a factor, though, considering how much of the track is built down in a bowl.

That will do it for pre-race.  I’ll be back with some quick notes following today’s race.  Be sure to tune into NBC Sports at 3:00 PM CDT.  Green flag flies at 3:15 so don’t be late!

 

10:45 AM – We’re back for Race Day at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at the soggy-but-sunny Barber Motorsports Park.  While the Birmingham area received pretty heavy thunderstorms last evening and night, the day has dawned here with bright sunshine, mild temperatures, high humidity, and a stronger south wind.

Before looking forward to today’s race, I’ll go over our after-track activities for last night because it’s pretty simple.  We went to dinner.  We left the track around 6:30 and arrived at Pappadeaux Cajun Seafood at 7:10.  It was 8:30 when we were seated.  We had been told it would be a 45-minute wait, so after an hour and ten minutes, George went to inquire if we should expect to be seated soon.  Upon inquiry, they realized they had skipped over George’s name quite some time previously and apologized for the oversight, saying we’d be seated shortly.  The restaurant had a very large crowd waiting to be seated when we arrived, but every time I stuck my head inside, there were five or six tables open.  After they finally remembered we were there, we were seated a short time later.

Even though there were several tables open in the main dining area, we were for some reason seated in the bar area.  Normally that’s no big deal, but last night, they had live music that was so loud I literally could not hear George or Susan as they shouted at me from across the table.  I know I sound like an old man, but honestly it was ridiculous.  My wife will vow that I like to listen to my music too loud, and I assure you my hearing is impeccable (my listening may be suspect, but not my hearing).  Thankfully they shut down there set right around 9:00, but it was just another annoyance in an altogether frustrating experience.

All that being said, when we did finally get served, the food was indeed excellent.  I had fried catfish (I suppose that’s tough to screw up too badly) with a baked potato and red beans with rice.  All my food was well prepared, fresh, and tasty.  I would definitely eat the food again, but I’m not sure I would care to return to the restaurant itself.  If Uber Eats serves Pappadeaux, I might recommend that.

By the time we left, it was nearly 9:45, so it was back to the hotel, a short FaceTime with the Mrs., and then off to bed.  It was a very long day.

As mentioned, the area here experienced heavy thunderstorms overnight, and the grounds here this morning are proof of such.  Several pop-up canopies fans had placed yesterday to secure their spots on the hill overlooking Turn 2 were ripped apart, crumpled, or overturned when we arrived this morning. Those fans will be disappointed when they see their spot-holding canopies no longer in place.

I’ve noted a couple times that this is my first experience at Barber Motorsports Park, and it is obvious, upon finally being here, the workers and volunteers take great pride in this facility and this event.  The grounds here are immaculately clean as I have not seen a single piece of stray litter on the grounds all weekend.  Not one.  That is a testament to both the volunteers and the fans for having pride in the image they present.

As expected for being in the South, all the volunteers I’ve dealt with have been extremely friendly and helpful.  They use a system of several mini vans to shuttle media and team members between the parking lots and the paddock, and each driver has been friendly and knowledgeable.  Several of the volunteers have mentioned to me that they have worked for all nine of the previous runnings of this race and genuinely enjoy the opportunity to be involved annually.

The only slight issue I’ve had with any of the volunteers was at the entrance to the Barber Racing Museum outside Turn 9 where I dealt with a volunteer who may not have been up to speed on the locations of access for some of the people working the event.  The gentleman was exceptionally friendly, but he was completely unaware of how to direct me to the photographers’ area outside of Turn 9.  Rather than sending me through the museum, he told me to take the tram to the Fan Village, which is halfway down the backstretch and, unfortunately, has no access to photographers.  It was honestly a minor blemish on an otherwise sterling weekend for the facility here.

For many years, Barber Motorsports Park has been heralded as one of the most scenic facilities on the IndyCar schedule.  Unfortunately, the 2019 schedule has bumped the race upon to early April instead of its traditional late-April date.  As such, much of the aesthetics of the facility – the lush, green grass, the beautiful flowering trees, and the colorful shrubbery – have yet to come into their full spring bloom.  There are early signs those days are soon to be here, but they haven’t quite arrived yet.  That’s disappointing for this first-time visitor.  Nonetheless, it’s very easy to see how the facility would look in full bloom and understand why many people call these grounds “The Augusta National of Auto Racing.”

The 30-minute morning warmup session is due to get underway in 30 minutes, and fans can watch live on NBC Sports Gold.  Afterwards, NBC Sports goes live at 3:00 PM for this afternoon’s race. It’s a very short pre-race today, so don’t be late!

Back with more later.

 

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