5 things to watch heading into Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix Alabama (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Is Penske’s Undefeated Start To The Season In Peril?

Team Penske is off to a perfect 3-for-3 start for the 2022 season with 3 wins in 3 races. They’ve also won 5 times in the 11 year history of this event too. However, they’ve not looked their best this weekend. They were only 5-16-18 on Friday’s practice, 4-11-16 on Saturday morning and 6-11-16 on Saturday afternoon. That’s not going to get it done for the win on Sunday especially with coming from starting spots of 4th, 7th and 19th respectively.

9 of the 11 INDYCAR races at Barber has been won by a top five starter. All 11 races have been won from a driver coming from a top 10 starting spot.

I don’t think they win on Sunday.

If they do, Scott McLaughlin (5th, 4th, 6th in practice, 4th in qualifying) or Josef Newgarden (starts 7th, won from 7th in 2017) would be the ones to do so.

However, Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport and Arrow McLaren SP look all around better than Penske right now. Even ECR’s Rinus VeeKay appears to be an easier target for the win.

Callum Ilott has been in the top 10 in all 3 practice sessions this weekend at Barber. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Testing Proving Crucial

Team Penske didn’t test here like other teams did. We’ve seen how track time including testing can really separate teams from those that don’t. It’s a new strategy involved in the series today that can really make or break race weekends.

How much did not testing here hurt Penske?

Well, Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing, Meyer Shank Racing, Juncos Hollinger Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing did. They combined to take 8 of the top 10 speeds in Friday’s practice session and 7 of 10 on Saturday morning. In the afternoon session, the teams that tested went 1-2-3-4-5. For qualifying, they took 4 of the top 6 qualifying speeds including 8 of the top 12.

Penske elected to focus on the street course and oval package for 2022 and will use their test days on them. They chose to test at Texas in favor of Barber. It paid off in a 1-2 finish but Will Power said that while the test was nice, it didn’t help much because they used a similar setup on his car this year as last at Texas.

The lack of testing at Barber is hurting them but helping the others including Callum Ilott who was in the top 10 in all 3 practice sessions including leading the final session while also qualifying 11th.

Will It Rain Or Not…

There’s currently a 40-50% chance of rain for Sunday’s race time. That has teams wondering if it actually will or not. If it does, it can change everything. It really takes away the advantage of those up front and can turn the tides to those that have experience of racing in the wet. That’s why rain or shine, the weather will play a role.

Pato O’Ward now has 2 straight front row starting spots at Barber. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Weekend Favoring The Youth So Far

When you come to Barber Motorsports Park, you think of Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Takuma Sato and Will Power. Combined, they’ve won 5 of the 11 races but also 8 of the 11 poles.

In fact, they had won the pole in 5 of the last 7 tries here. However, none of them made it out of the first round in qualifying. That may be the most eye opening stat of the weekend.

Power’s 63 career poles rank 2nd most ever. Castroneves’ 50 is 4th all-time. Dixon has 27 poles which is tied with Al Unser for 10th most in INDYCAR history.

Coming into this weekend, Dixon had never qualified outside of the Fast 6 in any of his 11 Barber starts.

Power, had 8 front row starting spots here in 11 tries including 9 Fast 6’s. 10 of his 11 starts were 7th or better.

Castroneves, had 7 Fast 6’s in 8 tries with a worst start of 7th.

They’ll start 13th (Dixon), 16th (Castroneves) and 19th (Power) respectively. Throw in Colton Herta (10th) and you get some of the best qualifiers coming from 10th on back.

In the 11 year history of this race, no one has won from worse than 9th.

Sato, qualified 17th and Pagenaud 24th.

On the flipside, it opened the door for the youngsters.

Among the Fast 6, all were under the age of 30 and all had a combined 15 poles. 4 of the 6 had 2 or fewer career poles won heading into Saturday afternoon.

3 of the top 4 starters have a combined 4 poles. 2nd place starter has 4 poles total. Factor in 3 of the 4 pole winners this season earning their 1st or 2nd career pole and you get a wild qualifying trend shaping up.

Practice 1 saw 22 year old Colton Herta lead 25 year old Alex Palou. Practice 2 saw 21 year old Rinus VeeKay lead 22 year old Pato O’Ward who led 22 year old Colton Herta who led 28 year old Scott McLaughlin. 25 year old Alex Palou was 6th.

Will we see a youngster win Sunday?

Pit strategy will be key on Sunday. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

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?

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