Friday, April 8, 2011

Grand Prix of Alabama Preview

Ah, Barber Motorsports Park. Who doesn't love the beautiful lines of the course, the verdant backdrop, the expectant, teeming crowds, and...

...those guys. Yipes.

By all accounts, Barber's doing quite well on attendance for their IndyCar race. This weekend's Indy Grand Prix of Alabama race might not be a full "sellout", but it's probably going to be close. Two weeks after Dario Franchitti schooled the field in the opener at St. Pete, we get to see the drivers compete on another one of the twisties. Helio Castroneves won here last year after Marco Andretti's team lost the race on a fuel strategy error. There's new faces in the field this week, the possibility of some soggy weather early on, and the second attempt at this whole double-file restart thing. Here are some of the other big storylines you'll want to watch for:

New Faces: Hey, look! James Hinchcliffe finally is making his IndyCar debut in the #06 Sprott Newman/Haas entry. Hinch tested exceedingly well here earlier this year; there are big expectations for the rookie Canadian driver to continue to wow the crowd. He should be fun to watch in his big car debut.

New Faces, Part 2: With Ana Beatriz sidelined with a wrist injury, Dreyer and Reinbold Racing needed to fill the #24 seat for Barber. Who'd they get? Oh, only 2010 ALMS champion Simon Pagenaud. Although everyone hopes Bia recovers soon, it's still going to see Pagenaud in his first IndyCar race. If he does sign onto a team for the Indy 500 (as rumors suggest), this might be an exciting preview of what in part to expect.

Traffic School: "OK, Mr. Castroneves, use your turn signals, put the car into drive, and slowly merge into traffic". While Helio might not be going through Driver's Ed anytime soon, we'll be paying close attention to how the double-file starts and restarts go this weekend. The double-file starts are nothing new, but it sure didn't look that way at St. Pete. The restarts seemed to gradually improve over the course of the race; hopefully that continues this week. This is a tight course; expect some early carnage, but hopefully not as much as the opener.

Heating Up Or Cooling Down?: Simona de Silvestro, Tony Kanaan, Alex Tagliani, Takuma Sato, Vitor Meira, and Rafa Matos can all claim great starts to the season. Whether they can keep it up at Barber is another question entirely. If any of those drivers can manage a Top 5 or Top 10 again, that's a pretty great start to the season.

Andretti Rebound?: Andretti Autosport had a terrible first week, with every single car of theirs being involved in some form of contact. Mike Conway qualified 2nd here last year, and as mentioned above, Marco Andretti probably should have won. Ryan Hunter-Reay should also do ok, but wasn't particularly impressive here last year (12th). Danica Patrick finished 19th at Barber in 2010, but she'll probably be relieved to get through this one with her original nose cone intact.

Delay d' Bourdais: It was unfortunate that Sebastien Bourdais wrecked his car and wasn't able to compete at St. Pete; a lot of fans are very anxious to see what he can do in a race. Don't expect Dale Coyne Racing to be gangbusters in qualifying, but it'll be fun to watch Sebas and his unique style try to move up during the race itself.

Get The Spotter's Guide Ready: A number of teams will be flashing different liveries this weekend, so don't feel bad if you don't recognize your favorite entry off the bat. Among the notable variations: Helio Castroneves in blue, white, and red AAA colors, Ryan Briscoe in the yellow Penske Truck Rental ride, Mike Conway in the gray and black Window World Cares car, Dario Franchitti in the blue and red Clorox ride, and Justin Wilson in the blue and green Charter car.

Wilson's Pain: Speaking of Justin Wilson, he'll be competing this weekend with a carbon fiber brace on that injured wrist. Barber's a technical, demanding track that should really test that injury, but if any driver can rise above it, it's Wilson. Watch to see how he copes with that wrist through the weekend.

Viso Revoked: EJ Viso started 2011 much like he ended 2010; looking like he was about to take his Dallara and become the first Venezuelan to successfully launch into space. It wasn't a good week at all for Viso, who had an incident in each session leading up to the race. Viso can be fast, but you have to think he has to start cutting back on the miscues soon. His teammate Taku Sato put together a great race last week; let's see if it's catching.

Rookie of the Year Watch: None of the rookies really stood out in the first round of the season; all of them, in fact, had issues at one point or another over the race weekend. We'll see if James Hinchcliffe gets a jump on them, or if Charlie Kimball or JR Hildebrand step up this week. Sebastian Saavedra recovered ok from a rough crash in qualifying, but it goes without saying he can't keep doing that. James Jakes did better than many expected last time out; we'll see if he can put another decent finish together for Dale Coyne.

Mazda Road to Indy: Nope, we didn't forget about the other young guns competing at Barber. In Star Mazda, American Connor De Phillip will try to make it two in a row against tough competitors Tristan Vautier, Patrick McKenna, and Martin Scuncio. In Firestone Indy Lights, the 1-2 USA punch of Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly will go head-to-head with Peter Dempsey and David Ostella, while Andretti's James Winslow and Stefan Wilson look to rebound from a rough opener. The Lights race will be telecast on versus as well as the usual IMS radio feed, so tune in and support the future.

Random Fact: Panther Racing qualified 23rd here last year, behind only Bertrand Baguette (making his first-ever IndyCar start), and Milka Duno (of course). However, they climbed up to finish 11th by the end of the race itself.

Pole Position: Will Power.

Winner: I'm saying Helio, but won't be shocked with an upset. Keep an eye on those Andretti cars.

Enjoy your race weekend, and stop back by Monday for the race recap!

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