INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

Is Palou The New Lead Driver At Ganassi?

For years, Scott Dixon was the overall lead driver at Chip Ganassi Racing. It wasn’t until Dario Franchitti came to the team in 2009 to where the pendulum swung from the 9 car to the 10 car. Prior to that, Dixon had won two championships in a six year span including an Indy 500 as well as 16 wins. The 10 car had 6 wins in that span.

However, Franchitti won three straight titles between 09-11 to go along with 11 wins. Dixon, had 10 victories still but was 2nd, 3rd and 3rd respectively in points.

The only separation was Franchitti’s titles.

2012 saw Dixon win twice and Dario once, the Indy 500, which equaled them now in victories between 2009-2012. Each had 12 wins. Dario had 3 titles and 2 Indy 500’s though.

2013 saw it swing back to Dixon’s favor. Dixon won 17 times between 2013 and the end of 2020. The rest of the teams won three times. In fact, between 2014 and 2017, they had a four car operation.

Now though, it appears that it’s swinging back to the 10 car side.

Alex Palou joined CGR in 2021 and immediately won the title. In 19 starts in this span, he has 3 wins and 11 podiums. Dixon has just 1 win and 5 podiums.

In fact, Dixon has just 1 win in his last 25 starts overall dating back to the second Gateway race in 2020. He had six wins in the 20 races prior as this span between wins is the second longest of his career. The other was 39 races between wins at Richmond in 2003 and Watkins Glen in 2005 as well as 36 races between his win in Nazareth during the 2001 season and his next victory in the 2003 season opener in Homestead. In fact, Dixon has just 6 podiums in his last 25 starts compared to 20 in his previous 31.

Palou currently sits third in points (-15) with Dixon fifth (-35). If this continues, then I’d say Palou may have moved himself into the lead driver.

Can Dixon Pick Up His 1st Barber Victory?

Scott Dixon comes to the Barber Motorsports Park looking for a rare stat that he’s not yet accomplished. Barber is a track that he’s never won at before. He’s 0-for-11. He’s also never won at St. Pete (0-for-18), Iowa (0-for-15), Portland (0-for-5), Laguna Seca (0-for-4) and COTA (0-for-1). He did get to cross off winless tracks in 2020 on the IMS road course as he was 0-for-6 prior to that year and World Wide Technology Raceway with him being 0-for-4 on the St. Louis area oval prior to that season too. Barber, Portland, Laguna Seca and COTA were all canceled in 2020, so he never got a chance to maybe scratch off more.

Can he get another track off the list?

It’s not like Dixon hasn’t been close at Barber. In 11 career starts, he has 9 podiums. 6 of those 9 podiums were runner-ups. He has two second place finishes in his last four Barber starts at that with a third place run last year one of the outliers.

Is 2022 the year?

Meanwhile, Dixon has also won at 11 venues currently not on the schedule too: COTA, Motegi, Houston, Kansas, Edmonton, Homestead, Richmond, Nashville, Kentucky, Watkins Glen, Pikes Peak and Nazareth.

2 Stop Or 3 Stop Strategy?

This race is going to be one where you need to get your calculator ready. Tire fall off, when to pit, when you use the reds and blacks and how many times you do so is going to determine this race.

Without many cautions on these types of tracks, the strategy plays are honestly wide open. Last year, Alex Palou was on two stop strategy and it paid off. When front row starters Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi peeled the track and onto pit road for their first time on Lap 17, it essentially handed Palou the win. See, O’Ward was battling a loose race car early on and had a puncture. Rossi, didn’t know that and followed him down pit road. Palou, turned his fastest laps of the race when he got clean air and the lead from that point forward and the rest was history.

Without a caution to throw a wrench into the strategy plays the rest of the way, it was a battle between the 2 stoppers and the ones on 3.

Palou was leading the 2 stop group and O’Ward the 3 stoppers.

Palou pit for the final time on Lap 61 where O’Ward did the same on Lap 66. Palou had such a large lead over O’Ward that the strategy play was the winning move.

O’Ward exited pit lane in fourth but was quickly passed by Marcus Ericsson. He’d get Ericsson back with 17 to go but could never catch anyone else in front and would come home fourth in his No. 5 Chevrolet.

Palou, then had to hold off Will Power from then on. Power, leap frogged Scott Dixon to end up in second over the final stint and was coming hard. He went from 2.7902-seconds back with 15 to go, to 2.3 seconds back with 12 to go, to 2.1 seconds back with 10 to go, to 1.8 back with seven to go and 1.5 with five to go. With more push to passes at his disposal, Power was a real threat to Palou.

But, he could never close the gap any more as Palou bested Power by .4016-seconds.

So, which strategy wins out on Sunday?

Can Penske Regain Barber Mojo?

Team Penske had started out hot at Barber. They won six of 11 overall including three of the last five. It’s just that they’ve not won in each of the last two years and quite honestly, they’ve not looked the part either.

Josef Newgarden came into the 2019 race with three wins and a third place run in each of his four prior Barber starts. He was fourth in 2019 and crashed on the opening lap and finished 23rd last year. He’s not led a single lap in three of his last five Barber tries.

Will Power did finish second last year but that was his first podium since his 2012 win. Scott McLaughlin was 14th as a rookie in 2021 while Simon Pagenaud had two podiums since 2012.

Can Penske find that magic again this weekend? It’s going to take a good qualifying effort. 9 of the 11 INDYCAR races at Barber has been won by a top five starter. Lucky to them, they’ve been on the front row in all three races this season. They’re also 3-for-3 to start the season in the win column though too, so if any time is a time for a turnaround, this is now.

Who Will Win?

It’s hard to bet against Team Penske right now. They’re 3-for-3 to start the 2022 season off with and have been stellar in every imaginable angle. However, Will Power has just one Barber podium since his win in 2012. Josef Newgarden was fourth and 23rd the last two times out. Scott McLaughlin is just in his second year, so the Penske crop to me, despite having won six times on this track, is one that I feel needs to show me more.

Andretti Autosport is trending up there but can’t get out of their own ways this season. Chip Ganassi Racing is sitting right there with Alex Palou having 2 podiums in 3 races this season and entering this weekend as the defending race winner.

I’ll take Palou.

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