5 things I’m watching heading into this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Jimmie Johnson’s Health

Jimmie Johnson is clearly after one thing – racing in the Indy 500. But, before we get to Indy, we first have to kick off the Month of May this weekend in Barber. With that said, his health is a factor as he’s still healing from a broken bone in his right hand after suffering that in a practice crash in the opening session of the Long Beach weekend. He pushed through the rest of the way, but that incident was just the start of a terrible “home game” for the Southern California native.

Johnson crashed in session 1. Crashed in session 2. Was penalized for interference in qualifying which saw him start on the last row. He then crashed in the race.

Now, can he bounce back with Indy looming later this month?

He seemed great at the test last week and told me racing at Indy with this injury would be okay. However, Barber is a very physical track and can put a lot of strain on your body. How will his hand hold up as the weekend progresses?

Johnson has a very real threat to win at Indy on Memorial Day weekend and you can be assured that he doesn’t want to put himself in any kind of danger in jeopardizing that.


Andretti let another one get away in Long Beach. How do they pick up in Barber? Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

How Does Andretti Autosport Respond?

Romain Grosjean masked more Andretti Autosport problems the last time out in Long Beach. I wrote a day prior too that Long Beach was now Andretti’s race to lose. They had won each of the last three races there and did so in dominating fashion at that.

Alexander Rossi led 71 of 85 laps in 2018. He backed that up with leading 80 of 85 laps and won by more than 20 seconds a year later. After a hiatus in 2020 due to COVID, they were back in victory lane last Fall here with Colton Herta leading 43 of 85 laps in his win from 14th.

That last race weekend, it was theirs. Herta, broke the track record and sat on the pole. He was 6th and 2nd respectively in the two practice sessions this weekend before topping the speed charts in warmup this morning.

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Rossi, was 2nd and 4th in practice and qualified 5th. Grosjean, was quickest in practice on Saturday morning and was second before crashing in the Fast 6. That lost him his top two laps which forced him to start 6th.

Quickest in practice on Saturday morning, quickest on Sunday morning, 3 of 6 in the Fast Six and coming to a race they’ve won 3 straight in.

The thing is, Grosjean was the only one with a clean race. He finished 2nd. Colton Herta and Devlin DeFrancesco each crashed in separate incidents while Alexander Rossi had pit road problems.

It further shined their struggles.

DeFrancesco has crashed out in 2 of the 3 races this season and sits 27th in the standings. Rossi, had a bad pit strategy call against him in St. Pete, had an electrical failure early in Texas and then slow stops in Long Beach. He’s 18th in points.

Herta was pushed off the podium due to the team not getting his No. 26 Honda full of fuel on his first stop in the season opener on the streets of St. Pete. That threw them off on strategy as he’d be in fuel save mode on the final stint. They had a slow stop on the final stop in Texas. Then, the stop wasn’t ideal on his first stop in Long Beach as well as Herta not getting onto pit road as good as Alex Palou. When pushing coming to his next stop, he made a mistake and crashed.

Grosjean, didn’t qualify as well as he should have in St. Pete which is why he finished 5th. He had an engine go sour in Texas and did come home runner-up in Long Beach despite a crash on the final lap of qualifying which would have put him on the front row.

Andretti is reeling.

From a nine year span between 2004 and 2012, they had won four titles.

In the 10 years since?

None.

Since the Aeroscreen was adopted for the 2020 season, Penske has won 12 times. Ganassi has 11 victories. Andretti…4.

DeFrancesco is having a hard time adjusting to INDYCAR. Herta’s future is still looking like its destined to be overseas while Rossi’s looks bleak to remain with AA.

Rossi sat a disappointing 27th in points after 2 races – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Over the last 40 races, Rossi’s yet to win. He has just 8 podiums and only 11 top fives.

He hasn’t won a race since Road America in 2019. He led 54 of 55 laps that day. In fact, that was the 10th race of that season. At that point, he had led in 7 of the 10 races to account for 182 laps led.

But, over the last 40 races during this winless streak, he’s led a total of 95 laps. He led 83 laps in 2020, two last year and 10 in St. Pete. That’s it.

Also during this 40 race drought, he has finished 17th or worse in 7 of his last 19 starts. He had 6 finishes of 17th or worse in his previous 47 races.

The prime of his INDYCAR career is being wasted and he’s not anywhere near to where he expected to be in his career path in terms of success yet.

It seems as if this path continues, his days are numbered to staying with Andretti.

For Herta, this is already shaping up to be a season of what should have been for him. These are days he’s trying to end. These are ones keeping him from being where he eventually wants to be – an INDYCAR champion.

His goals of being a champion rest on turning top fives into podiums. So far, he’s 0-for-3 in 2022.

He had 10 top fives in his first 32 starts to his career. The problem was, he only had four podiums out of those 10.

Last season, Herta had seven top fives in his No. 26 Honda in 16 races run. Out of those seven, five of which were on the podium giving him more podiums in 16 races last season than in 32 starts prior.

Still, he needs to do so on a more consistent basis. Alex Palou had eight podiums. Josef Newgarden had six. They were 1-2 in the championship. Sine 2016, all but one champion had a podium finish in 50% or more of their starts throughout a season. Josef Newgarden had a 41% podium rate in 2019. Other than that, everyone else has been around the 50% mark.

That’s what Herta is missing is turning those solid days into podiums.

In 2021, he led 39 laps from the pole in a similar type of weekend that he just had at Long Beach at Nashville. He was pushing too hard in the end to get the lead back and crashed. He’d finish 19th instead. Two races later, he led 101 laps in Gateway. He broke a drive shaft late.

This is the detriment to Herta. It’s especially all the more painful when it’s a track that he considers his home race.

“As a young kid, I always dreamed of becoming an INDYCAR driver, and that was because of this race,” said Herta, 22 of his pole on Saturday. “To get the win last year was amazing, and we checked another box with the pole. It feels incredible.”

Out of his 6 career wins, 4 of which came from the pole. He left two more on the table between Nashville and Long Beach.

Herta, now sits 11th in points, -59 heading to Barber.

Can they turn it around this weekend?

Herta’s 2 Barber finishes are 24th and 22nd respectively. Rossi has no podiums in 5 starts while Grosjean was 10th last year. They’ve been shutout of victory lane in their last 6 Barber starts at that as an organization.


Josef Newgarden has won the last 2 races, can he 3-peat? Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Can Penske Remain Perfect?

We know the term “Penske perfect” but that is true to the season so far for them in their unblemished record to kick start a strong 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season off with.

It took Team Penske nine races before finally reaching victory lane during last year’s NTT INDYCAR Series season. The thing is, it’s not like they were too far off though. They had a car finish runner-up in each of the first four races, was fourth and third respectively as their top driver in Indy on the two courses, should have swept both events in Belle Isle, should have won in Road America, then did so in Mid-Ohio.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

“Honestly I thought it was so funny last year we kept getting. We were getting bombarded,” Penske driver Josef Newgarden said of last year’s start to the season. “The first eight races people were, like, ‘what’s wrong with you guys?’ How have you not had a win? It was just becoming comical because our performance was actually pretty good. We had good performances, and they just weren’t translating.

“We had an issue here, an issue there, and we could never really rattle off a complete victory. Because that went on for whatever it was. I think it was seven or eight events. Everyone just assumed that there was a really big issue within our team. There wasn’t.”

Now though, they’re off to a flying start and getting the results they should have a year ago. They’ve won one pole and been on the front row in all three races run, won three races and 5 of the combined 9 podiums available to start 2022 off with.

However, despite this strong start, Josef Newgarden says that they can’t get too ahead of their selves just yet.

‘You’ve got to be cautious,” he said. “It’s early. It’s three races in. It’s so hard to paint a complete picture. It’s easy to paint these small pictures and say, look, this is everything, but then the picture changes really quickly in a another couple races.

“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but I feel really good about where it’s going.”

Newgarden also notes that this should be expected at a team like Team Penske. They should be on everyone’s radar.

“I don’t think we need any more respect. Everyone has been very kind to Team Penske. It’s obviously a storied team, has a lot of history, and Roger — I don’t think you can look at anyone better to have a career than Roger Penske and the way that he carries himself and represents the team. I don’t ever feel like we’re lacking the respect or that people are discounting us. I don’t think anyone ever really does.

“But you know, I think everyone holds us to a very high standard, and if we’re not excellent every single moment then there’s something wrong. I understand that.

“With this type of history at a place like Team Penske, you totally get it. That’s how highly successful franchises are viewed.”

He’s won two straight races on the season and has won 3 of the last 6 on the scenic Alabama facility. In fact, Newgarden has 5 top 4 finishes in his last 6 starts at Barber.

Scott McLaughlin has 2 top 2 finishes in 3 starts this season while Will Power was runner-up in this very race a year ago, is a two-time Barber victor to go along with 8 top fives in 11 starts on the track. For the season, he’s flying under the radar with a top 5 in all 3 races. The last time he’s done that?

2014.

He won the title that year.

They led the way in testing at Indy, so a Barber win gives them a considerable amount of momentum heading to a track with the biggest circle on it for them to succeed at.


O’Ward won the pole here last season and enters this weekend after a top 5 in Long Beach – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Can Pato O’Ward Keep Momentum Going?

Every team in every spot faces some kind of adversity during the course of the season. What separates championship level teams from the pretenders is how they respond to it.

Well, heading to Long Beach, the site of just the 3rd race of the year, Pato O’Ward’s season was already on the brink. You can tell the decision from McLaren to choose Colton Herta over him for an F1 opportunity this season left him stewing and being where he is in points just left a dark cloud over this team. He felt that was his opportunity and now that it was taken out from under him, there was definitely some questions on his future. Could he get past this?

Then, with Felix Rosenqvist earning a pole and then a Fast Six starting spot in back-to-back races, things weren’t looking up for the man that has made it to the final race with a shot at the championship for two straight years now.

However, in Long Beach, O’Ward had a stellar drive up to 5th for his first top 10 of the season. He noted that this could be a momentum changing result. He was well aware and said that this wasn’t an ideal start to the year, but he said he told his team if they could get him a car, he’d take it from there to lay the foundation and give them the momentum that they’ve been searching for.

“Today was honestly very solid for us,” O’Ward said to the broadcast after the race. “I know it’s not a win but we’ve had a very rough start to our year. All I wanted for the team today was to get a nice, solid foundation and I’ll take care of the rest. We can build on momentum today and we should be proud of that. We went forward, not just a couple of positions but a good handful.”

This finish can do just that. It was O’Ward’s 16th top five in 41 career starts in the series but maybe the most important once. At the last visit for the next two tracks (Barber, Indy road course), he won the pole. After that is the Indy 500. He finished sixth and fourth respectively in his two starts there. Then we go to Belle Isle where he won at last June.

This next stretch is very important to O’Ward’s championship aspirations. He moves up to 9th in points and goes from 64 points down to 55.


Is Barber the spot where Ganassi turns momentum their side? Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Ganassi Ready To Capitalize

Team Penske has shown that they’re tops in ovals and street courses. Can Chip Ganassi Racing take over now that we’re going to a natural road course for the first time of the season. The next two are on these types of tracks including 4 (Barber, Indy RC, Road America, Mid-Ohio) of the next 6.

While Team Penske is undefeated 3-0 to start 2022, defending series champion Alex Palou, knows first hand how this could all turn back around. Penske went 0-for-8 to start last season while Ganassi won 2 of the 1st three events and 3 of the 1st 7. A year prior, Ganassi won each of the first 4 races.

Now, with Penske doing this season what Ganassi has done in the last 2, Palou is ready to put that Penske power to an end.

After all, Palou was 2nd in St. Pete, 3rd in Long Beach and Ganassi had all 4 cars in the top 7 in Texas. He also has 5 top 4 finishes in his last 6 starts dating back to the end of last season.

“Yeah, they did an amazing job at the start of the year,” he said. “The same way we started really good the past year, they started really good this year I think with the three cars they have. Yeah, that’s going to change soon. I don’t know if next race or if two, three races, but that’s going to change, and we’re still there. Everybody is talking that they’ve won three races, but I think we are only 15 points away of them.

“We are always there. We are trying the best. We got already two podiums this season, so yeah, I’m feeling confident.”

Palou, says this season despite a pair of podiums in 3 starts has been tough. But, they’re now going to places to where they had a lot of success last year at.

“We are now heading to some of the tracks that we know we can be a bit better, that we have better cars that I’m more confident,” Palou continued. “We tested at Barber, as well, two weeks ago. It felt amazing to be back there, and then we go to the month of May, which is the best month of the year, a part of April which is my birthday, also. So yeah, April is good. But I cannot wait for the month of May. I think it’s really special for everybody, all the drivers, all the crews, the fans, so yeah, hopefully we’re already carrying good momentum, but hopefully we can carry better momentum with Barber and Indy GP before the big one, the Indianapolis 500.”

Palou returns to the site of his 1st career win this weekend – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Palou, won the race at Barber last year. He was third ahead of all four Penske drivers in the Indy road course. He was runner-up in the Indy 500. If he can replicate that, watch out.

Scott Dixon has never won in Barber before but does have 6 runner-up finishes to go along with 9 podiums in 11 tries. He’s also had a top 10 in all 3 races run this season too.

Marcus Ericsson overcame a pit road penalty in St. Pete to score a top 10. He was third in Texas and was in a spot for a podium in Long Beach before a late race crash. In two Barber starts, he’s had a top 10 in each as well.

Penske and Ganassi have combined to win 5 of the last 6 at Barber and while Penske may be off to the hot start, Ganassi is right there lurking in the shadows trying to sneak in.

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