Scott Dixon comes to the Barber Motorsports Park looking for a rare stat that he’s not yet accomplished. The Barber Motorsports Park is a track that he’s never won at before. He’s 0-for-12 to be exact. He’s also never won at St. Pete (0-for-19), Iowa (0-for-17), Portland (0-for-6) or Laguna Seca (0-for-5) either.
Can he get another track off the list?
It’s not like Dixon hasn’t been close at Barber though. In 12 career starts, he has 9 podiums. 6 of those 9 podiums were runner-ups. He has two second place finishes in his last five Barber starts at that with a third place run in 2021 and fifth last year as two of the outliers.
Does 2023 = a win?
Dixon comes in mad with contact from Pato O’Ward in Long Beach relegating him to a last place finish (27th). That has dropped him down to sixth in points at -38. He was third (-15) entering.
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. Can he finally snag a Barber win on Sunday?
Barber opens up plenty of strategy plays.
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. In 2021, 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.
Last year was another two stopper.
Rinus VeeKay had led 57 of the first 60 laps. He hit pit lane on Lap 61 in the lead. He’d never lead another lap.
Pato O’Ward made up a ton of ground on the in lap and as a result, passed VeeKay in Turn 5 on the out lap. He’d never look back and lead the final 26 laps en route to his 3rd career Indy Car victory.
For those on the 3 stop strategy, the beginning of the race was going their way. Josef Newgarden and Colton Herta were blazing fast and may have had something if not for Callum Ilott and Helio Castroneves having contact on Lap 32 in Turn 9. That brought out the 1st and only caution of the day and for the 3 stoppers who were going to have to pit here in a few laps, it ended their shots of a win.
“I think ultimately what allowed us to do it was the pace was honestly super slow,” O’Ward said of last year’s race compared to the year prior for him. “Everybody was doing that. I think that was for sure the fastest way to get around for the 90 laps. Obviously not for the fastest lap, but we wanted to win the race.
“Last year I think we got fastest lap but we crossed the finish line in fourth. I think it was all about how can we save as much fuel and also we were a bit into the mercy of how long are we going to make the reds last? I think that was probably the biggest thing, just making sure that we can make the reds last up until lap, I don’t know when I pitted, 28 or 30 or something. I think that was the biggest thing, just making sure we didn’t just overshoot the tire in the first 10 laps because we weren’t going to make it to do the two-stopper.
“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. Whenever you’re saving so much fuel, it makes the saving of the tire a lot easier.”
VeeKay allowed O’Ward to chop off 2 seconds off his lead heading to pit road. At Lap 60, VeeKay led O’Ward by 2.0875-seconds. They’d pit the next time by. VeeKay, had O’Ward right on his rear wing on pit lane.
“Unfortunately I got held up a little bit before getting into my second pit stop, so Pato was on me, really on me,” VeeKay said.
Then, Palou did the overcut on him by going 2 laps later before hitting pit road for his final time on Lap 63. Palou, was .635-seconds quicker than VeeKay on his pit in lap. He was .363-seconds faster for his time on pit lane and .801-seconds faster on hit out lap. While VeeKay had a .200-second advantage in the pit box, add it all up and you get a 1.599-second difference between Palou and VeeKay which put Palou ahead of VeeKay when he exited pit lane.
“Yeah, you feel bummed at that moment,” said VeeKay when settling into 3rd. “There’s still so many laps left in the race, you never give up and you kind of reset and try to make the best out of it still.
“Definitely still surprised by how Alex got between us. Yeah, I think I could have made a run for him. I came out of turn five fully sideways, that’s kind of where I lost touch with him.
“Yeah, I did not really expect that to happen. It’s INDYCAR. Anything can happen. Level is extremely high. You weaken a little bit for one second and you’re being passed from the lead.”
Palou said that extra two laps meant he knew that he could push more in the end to close that deficit to O’Ward too.
“I went two laps longer so I knew I could push more. I didn’t really had to save that much fuel as him. I said, Okay, we’ll have a chance, have plenty of overtake to use. I felt really comfortable with the car. Started pushing. He was making the same lap time. I said, Oh, no, that’s going to be tough.
“I pushed till the end. Caught him on some laps, lost a little bit of time on some others. He was really good. It’s maybe a track where even if you’re a little bit faster, you cannot really pass. It’s so hard. As soon as I would get, I don’t know, a second close to him, I would just lose my front and drop 3/10ths max. I was doing that all race at the end.
“But it was fun. I was trying to push him and try and make him to do a mistake or try to make him to push too much, have to save fuel. But, no, he did a good job.”
Early on, the three stopper was working. Then came that Lap 32 caution which ruined anyone on that strategy.
The top 3 stopper to finish was Romain Grosjean in 7th. Colton Herta, was 10th with Marcus Ericsson (11th) and Josef Negarden (14th) barely inside of the top 15.
So, which strategy wins out on Sunday?
The two stopper is a complete fuel saving day and knowing which strategy to use the alternates vs. the primaries. The three stopper is just pure qualifying laps all day. With the tire fall off being great here, the strategy calls are open.
When you come to Barber Motorsports Park, you think of Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Takuma Sato and Will Power. Combined, they have 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?
How can I not be watching them again? They went from a championship outlier to having three cars in the top eight of points now after getting all three of them in the top four of the final finishing order the last time out at Long Beach. In fact, it was a 1-2 finish that day.
Now, can they keep this going?
They’ve had fast race cars this season in putting three cars in the Fast Six at St. Pete. They had a chance in Texas to get in the fight for a top five. Long Beach they put it all together.
Now, what can they do in this next stretch coming up?
Kyle Kirkwood got his maiden win and first pole last time out. I wouldn’t count him out in Barber. Romain Grosjean has a pair of top 10 finishes on the Alabama road course including a seventh place run last year. He also led 31 of the opening 71 laps in St. Pete and was in a prime position to win following the final pit sequence before he and Scott McLaughlin made contact going for the win with 29 laps remaining. At Texas, he crashed with two laps left while running inside the top five.
Long Beach, he started third and finished second.
He’s seventh in points (-39).
Colton Herta is good everywhere and has now finished seventh and fourth the last two races. What makes them even more interesting is the fact that after Barber is the Indy road course to where they swept both races a year ago. Herta won this very spring race while Grosjean has two of his four runner-up finishes on this Indy road course.
The Indy 500 is after and Andretti always has good cars on this package. Then it’s to Detroit for an inaugural street course race for which Andretti has arguably had the top speed on street course racing this season.
The drama in Alex Palou’s life is behind him. It started around this time last year and didn’t clear up until the season finale in Laguna Seca. Palou started the year off with three podiums in the opening four races but when Ganassi got word that the Spaniard was looking to leave the camp for McLaren, it got messy. Litigation and lawyers got involved for which caused Palou to sit in limbo.
That cost him on track performance. Palou would have just two podiums in his next 12 starts. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to be allowed to leave, he and Ganassi spoke and cleared things up. He’d then win by a half-of-a-minute in the season finale.
This year, he’s off to another hot start. In the last race on the streets of Long Beach, Palou brought his No. 10 Dallara-Honda home in fifth to score his 19th top five result in his 50th career start. He was eighth in St. Pete, third in Texas and now fifth. If you go back to last year’s season finale, that’s three top fives in his last four tries.
As a result, he’s up to third in points and 19 out of the points lead.
Next up is this weekend in Barber for which is a place that he won his first career race at in 2021. He was also runner-up last year. Palou is on his way to being in the mix once again for the championship.
Since Palou joined CGR in 2021, he’s had 16 top five finishes and 15 podiums in 36 starts.