Friday, April 5, 2013

Storylines: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

When the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama made its debut in 2010, there were a good many complaints about the suitability of the track for IndyCar, with arguments made that it was doomed to be a parade with very little passing. “Beautiful place,” folks would say, “but not a good match for IndyCar”.

Thankfully, with last year’s race, much of that talk has dried up. Last year’s Barber race was the first big inclination many of us got that the DW12 was going to give us tremendous racing. Dogfights between Dario Franchitti, Marco Andretti, and Sebastien Bourdais (in a Lotus, no less!) were just part of the fun, as the field sliced and diced their way all afternoon. Will this year’s race be as good? We can only hope so. Here are some of the main storylines heading into Barber Motorsports Park this weekend:

Dinger Debut: Of course, in what is bound to be a hot topic, this weekend marks AJ Allmendinger’s debut for Penske Racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series. He’s definitely got the right team for his first effort, but expect him to be under a microscope in terms of performance this weekend. Realistically, Dinger will probably be just slightly off the pace, but as tight as this field is going to be, any difference could be magnified far beyond its actual significance.

Penske Perfection: Speaking of Penske drivers, Penske Racing has won every single IndyCar Barber event. Will Power has an excellent chance to rebound from his disappointing St. Pete result, but he’ll have to contend with Helio Castroneves, who is also a former winner in Alabama and looking for a title run.

Fast Andretti Start: Despite Ryan Hunter-Reay battling a sick car, the St. Petersburg opener went amazingly well for Andretti, with James Hinchcliffe grabbing a hard-fought victory, Marco Andretti grabbing a podium, and EJ Viso rebounding for a resilient Top 10 result. There’s not much sense in doubting Andretti is a top-tier, “Big 3” team at this point, but if they have another great weekend, that could be a sign that they’re ready for another title fight. They’ll also be looking for Ryan Hunter-Reay to record a good result, but he’s never recorded a Top 10 at Barber. Will this be the weekend that changes?

Marco’s Mojo: Marco Andretti was aggressive but cool last week, and seemed to be in a good place mentally after his offseason work in that direction. He’s had two Top 5s at Barber, so if his campaign of improvement is going to take another step forward, this is a good chance for exactly that.

Honda Power(?): Depending on who you spoke to at St. Pete, Honda engines either had enough to win (Foyt) or were well off the mark (Ganassi). There’s no doubt Chevy looks to have the stronger teams right now, but Hondas aren’t exactly bringing up the rear of the field, either. Either Honda will turn up some better results at Barber, or we’ll get more hilarious bellyaching from Chip Ganassi. It’s a win/win, really.

Tire Trickiness: Firestone brought what was needed to St. Pete, as we saw reds and black handle very differently, with massively different dropoff rates towards the end of a run. Tires are one of those strategy items that can really liven up a race; ask Simona de Silvestro. If we get this sort of tire differentiation and characteristics throughout the season, we’ll be in a good place.

Bia In For Coyne: Ana Beatriz was announced as in the second Dale Coyne Racing Car (#18) through Indianapolis. That gives the seat some stability, though from the looks of things at St. Pete, the car itself could use a bit of that. Best of luck to Bia; hopefully she’s able to get a nice string of races together. Still, may we please see Stefan Wilson at some point?

Livery Watch: Dario Franchitti’s car morphs into a Charlie Kimball car-lookalike this week, as Banana Boat features prominently on the sides. Helio Castroneves will have some Turbo advertising on his AAA machine, and Tony Kanaan will again have Mouser Electronics featured on his ride. Oriol Servia will be in the blue-and-green Charter livery for Panther DRR, and Justin Wilson switches to the Boy Scouts of America livery for Dale Coyne for the remainder of the season.

Mazda Road to Indy Update: It’s a Firestone Indy Lights weekend, which means the small but prospect-laden Lights field will again be contesting before the big cars take to the track. Jack Hawksworth won his first Lights race, but Carlos Munoz, Peter Dempsey, and Sage Karam will be among those working to ensure he doesn’t win his second. Former Schmidt Lights driver Victor Carbone looks to be in with Team Moore, as American Ethan Ringel’s contentious, brief, and unpleasant time with the team looks to be at an end.

Fun Fact: Graham Rahal’s P4 here last year was his top result for the year on a road or street course (he also finished P4 at the Edmonton airport course).

Pole Prediction: Will Power. He’s so very good here.

Winner Prediction: We’ll split the Penskes this week, and take Helio for the win.

Dark Horse Pick: Oh, I don’t know. It’s awfully tough to go against Chevy this week, but I’m thinking Tristan Vautier could have a very good day here—he seemed to have a knack for it when in Lights. If that’s too far-fetched for you, Simona de Silvestro finished P9 here in 2011, and has looked pretty impressive with that Chevy engine.

Don’t forget, your IndyCar Fantasy picks are due by 10am ET for Barber! Have a great weekend, and enjoy the race!

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