5 burning questions for Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Does Date/Time Affect Crowd?

Barber has always been a well-attended event. However, does this year pose a risk of attendance dropping a bit? This is the second straight season that the INDYCAR race in Barber will run a week after the NASCAR weekend down the road in Talladega. Last year I wondered the same thing, but luckily, attendance wasn’t affected.

This year however, I wonder how much of a second year of this, the economy being in the situation that it is and the fact of a later start time will affect things.

Most years, INDYCAR at Barber is an early afternoon start, especially for a central time zone. The track isn’t too far from the homebase of the INDYCAR fans to really just drive back home afterwards. Now, with a late afternoon start, that’s not really an option anymore.

The race will likely be over between 5:30-6 p.m. ET. An 8 hour trek home gets you in your driveway at 2 a.m. at the earliest and that’s if there’s no traffic out of there.

That plus Indy being next up, some fans may just elect to punt on this weekend and save their money for another time. Which is why I wonder what this crowd looks like in comparison to last year and even in 2019 (no race in 2020 and coming out of COVID in 2021).

The youth shined last year in Barber. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Why Has Barber Allowed For Underdog Winners Recently?

For some reason, just twice in 11 years did the points leader entering Barber win the race itself. The 12th year isn’t counted since in 2021, Barber served as the season opener. Still, it’s wild to think about Barber not serving as a place to where the top guys in points early on, typically win at.

Pato O’Ward was 9th in points prior to last year’s win. Takuma Sato was 13th in 2019. What’s even crazier is, just five times in those 11 years was the race winner even in the top five in points entering.

  • 2010: 6th entering
  • 2011: 2nd entering
  • 2012: 7th entering
  • 2013: 18th entering
  • 2014: 5th entering
  • 2015: 8th entering
  • 2016: 1st entering
  • 2017: 5th entering
  • 2018: 2nd entering
  • 2019: 13th entering
  • 2020: No Race
  • 2021: Season opener
  • 2022: 9th entering

While some may say, well that’s early in the season, what about where they finish?

Just three times did a Barber race winner end up winning the season championship. Simon Pagenaud in 2016, Josef Newgarden in 2017 and Alex Palou in 2021 are it. Since 2013, four times in the nine year span did the race winner even finish in the top five in points at seasons end.

It’s not just that, it’s the entire podium. Since 2018, just once was a podium finisher here even in the top three in points at seasons end.

Final Points Standing By Barber Podium Finishers

2010: 4th, 3rd, 1st

2011: 2nd, 3rd, 1st

2012: 2nd, 3rd, 4th

2013: 7th, 1st, 2nd

2014: 6th, 9th, 3rd

2015: 7th, 4th, 1st

2016: 1st, 5th, 4th

2017; 1st, 3rd, 2nd

2018: 5th, 4th, 10th

2019: 9th, 4th, 11th

2020: No Race

2021: 1st, 9th, 4th

2022: 7th, 5th, 12th

Can Penske Regain Barber Mojo Back?

Team Penske had started out hot at Barber. They won half (6-for-12) overall here including three of the last six. It’s just that they’ve not won in each of the last three 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 in 2021 and just 14th last year. He’s not led a single lap in four of his last six Barber tries.

Will Power did finish second in 2021 but that was his first podium since his 2012 win. He didn’t make it out of the first round of qualifying last year. Scott McLaughlin was 14th as a rookie in 2021 and 6th last year while Simon Pagenaud had two podiums since 2012 before he exited the team.

Can Penske find that magic again this weekend?

They were strong in the March test among 16 drivers, with Scott McLaughlin leading the way. Will that translate over to a strong weekend? It was cold then so I’m curious on how much data will correlate.

So far this season, it’s been a ho-hum start.

Josef Newgarden sits fourth in points (-21) and won at Texas, but his other two finishes were 17th and ninth respectively. Will Power is ninth in points (-42) after being seventh, 16th and sixth respectively. He’s not led a lap all year. Scott McLaughlin is tied with Power in points (-42) with finishes of 13th, sixth and 10th respectively.

McLaughlin led 38 laps in St. Pete and had a top two car. Unfortunately, that incident with Romain Grosjean while going for the win dropped him out of a potential win to 13th. Texas he just didn’t have a car capable of a win. Same for Long Beach.

The youth shined last year in Barber. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Will Weekend Favor The Youth Again?

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 12 races but also 8 of the 12 poles.

In fact, entering last season, 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 last year. That may be the most eye opening stat of that weekend.

Power holds the career poles record. Castroneves’ 50 is 4th all-time. Dixon has 28 poles which is 10th ever.

Coming into that 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 prior 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’d 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 12 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 last year’s race weekend.

3 of the top 4 starters have a combined 4 poles. 2nd place starter has 4 poles total.

Practice 1 last year 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.

The podium was one of the youngest we’ve ever seen. A 22 year old was victorious. A 21 year old finished 3rd and led the most laps. A 25 year old was the meat of the sandwich in 2nd.

Will we see a youngster win Sunday?

Romain Grosjean the last race weekend on the streets of Long Beach – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Is Grosjean A Championship Contender?

The last time out, Romain Grosjean was bridesmaid once again. This was the fourth time in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career that he’s been runner-up including two of which in Long Beach now and two on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

While he was bummed to not have won, he was happy to give Andretti a 1-2 in Long Beach.

Michael Andretti could be more thrilled with Grosjean by not over pushing it and to settling for that fifth podium in 33 starts. Grosjean said that it was a product of circumstances too. He knew with where they pit for the final time, pushing wasn’t going to be permitted since they had to save just enough fuel to get to the end. Same for his first stint. With where the second caution flew, it made the second stint one of fuel saving to get enough laps to have the next stop be the last one.

“First thing we’ve got to say is congratulations to the whole team, first, second, fourth,” Grosjean said. “It’s been awesome, a good weekend. Kyle (Kirkwood) has done an amazing job in qualifying and again in the race. I mean, he didn’t make any mistake in front of me. Couldn’t use any of that.

“We had a great strategy, did a very good job. Had a very fast car. Because the way the race turn up, I have to save a lot of fuel on the last stint. I had 188 second of push to pass left, but I was not allowed to use it. For once I saved too much, I guess.

“It sucks. I just wanted to push the button and I wasn’t allowed to.

“Yeah, it was tough. I would lie if I said I wouldn’t have loved to be on the top step of the podium today, and I thought I had a chance. Just the way the race turned out, the fuel situation was, it wasn’t possible.

“As a team, I think it’s very good where we are. The team has been working super hard through the winter to improve our pit stops. I believe in Texas I had the fastest pit stop of everyone. Here again we had fast pit stop.

“We knew that in lap and out lap were going to be critical. I was hoping that I was going to be the one going a lap longer than everyone else, but it was Kyle at the end. It’s normal, he was the leader. We had to cover Josef Newgarden. We did that well.

“Yeah, as I said, the fuel situation was not easy to manage through the end of the race. Created a lot of issues with brakes getting too cool, tires losing temperature. We had good cars and managed to get 1-2.”

That’s why Grosjean was never able to push the issue at Kirkwood for the win, but bigger picture was on his mind. Grosjean has a legitimate shot at a potential championship caliber of a season. While he entered the weekend 15th in points, he left in 7th (-39).

You also have to look at how good of a car he’s had this season. He was in the mix to win all three races thus far. He led 31 laps in St. Pete and cycled to the lead after the final pit stop sequence. However, Scott McLaughlin exited pit lane and fought back which unfortunately took both out on Lap 71 of 100 in the tire barriers.

In the next race at Texas, he crashed while running in the top five with two laps left.

Now, he has a finish to back up the speed.

“It’s better than finishing third two years in a row, I guess,” Grosjean joked about finishing runner-up twice here in as many years.

“For me, it was more like after the two first races, kind of was mine, but it’s okay, I give it to you. You got it anyway (smiling).

“I think we’re strong everywhere. Today the race car wasn’t the best ever. I think we’re going to learn a few things and move forward. Generally we have a very fast car. Two weeks ago in Texas Motor Speedway, also showed I could do ovals.

“I think 2022 was definitely a very hard season. I couldn’t get the car to do what I wanted it to do. I couldn’t find the feel.

“I’ve been racing for 25 years. I still doubt myself sometimes. I believe I’m one of the best in the world, but sometimes I still think do I still have it, do I still know how to drive.

“That’s why some people are so important for me. That’s why Texas being in front was important. Like today, finishing second is important. I still know how to do it.

“Yeah, when we speak in Laguna Seca, I want to be with those guys fighting for the championship, and I think we get a chance to do that.”

Next up is Barber. He has two top 10 finishes in as many tries including a seventh place run a year ago. Then it’s to the IMS road course to which he has two runner-up’s and a pole. A double points Indy 500 race then another street course after that has Grosjean in a position to be in the championship conversation again.

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