TRACK: Barber Motorsports Park (2.38-mile, 16-turn road course), DISTANCE: 90 Laps (214.2 Miles)
TRACK HISTORY/RACE TRENDS
This will be the 13th year that the NTT IndyCar Series has visited the scenic Alabama facility, with the only exception being in 2020 due to COVID. The 2021 race served as the season opener. Last year’s moved back a bit to the opening weekend of May as the lead in to Indy. This year is still the lead in to the Month of May, but it’s the final weekend of April instead of in May itself.
- Honda won the 1st couple of years at Barber, but they’ve won just three times over the last 10 however. That’s all due to Honda being the sole engine provider for the series in those opening two years of action on this track. Chevrolet is 7-for-10 on the track but it last year ended a two-year Honda run.
- We’ve seen just 2 or fewer cautions in 7 straight years including 10 of the 12 overall.
- The season favorites haven’t necessarily won here lately. O’Ward a year ago was 9th in points entering. 2020 didn’t have a race while 2021 was the first race of the season. 2019 saw Takuma Sato being 13th in points entering. Prior to that, there was 3 straight years of the drivers to win entering being 1st, 5th and 2nd in points respectively with 2 of the 3 being champions. Even before that, it was 7th, 18th, 5th and 8th entering.
- The podium finishers here also haven’t necessarily be in the championship hunt either by seasons end.
- Last year, their final finishing positions in points were 7th, 5th and 12th respectively. In 2021 was 1st, 9th and 4th. 2019 was 9th, 4th and 11th. 2018 was 5th, 4th and 10th.
TRACK COMPARISONS/WHO’S BEEN GOOD ON THEM
While a road course is a road course, Barber is most comparable though to the Indianapolis Road Course, Mid-Ohio, Road America, Portland and Laguna Seca. Toronto, Long Beach, Nashville, Detroit and St. Pete are each street circuits run on city streets. These other road courses are all natural free flowing terrain with some elevation changes. If you’re good at one, you’re more than likely good at the others.
The top teams are the ones to beat on them.
Since 2020 (21 races) which was the debut of the Aeroscreen, Team Penske has 8 wins on these types of tracks. They have the most Barber wins (6) as well. However, each of those 6 came in the first nine years of this event. They’re 0-for-3 since with their last triumph coming on April 23, 2018.
That win by Josef Newgarden started a trend to where we’ve seen a different organization win for the last four years. Penske (2018), Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing (2019), No Race (2020), Chip Ganassi Racing (2021) and Arrow McLaren (2022). Does this trend continue?
Andretti Autosport would be next up to do so. They’ve won twice here (2013, 2014), both by Ryan Hunter-Reay. They’ve also won the third most times (4) in this span with only Penske’s 8 and Chip Ganassi Racing (7) with more.
Andretti won both Indy road course races a year ago.
Only the McLaren win last year by Pato O’Ward and Ed Carpenter Racing on the Indy Road Course (2021) are the only other teams to have won on a natural road course during the Aeroscreen era.
They’re also dominating the podiums too. Between Penske (19), Ganassi (18) and Andretti (15), they’ve combined to have taken 52 of the 63 podiums chances (83%) in this span. Dale Coyne Racing is next best with four, followed by ECR (3), McLaren (2) and RLL (2).
Barber opens up several strategy plays.
This race is going to be one to where you need to have your calculator ready. Tire fall off, when to pit, when you use the greens 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.
Qualifying is everything here. All 12 races have been won from a top 10 starter. Furthermore, 10 of the 12 INDYCAR races at Barber have been won by a top five starter. 5 of the last 6 have been won by the top 3 including 4 straight.
It’s not just here. It’s natural road courses in general.
Starting positions for natural road courses lately (since 2016) 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 7th, 1st, 5th, 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 20th, 1st, 4th, 1st, 8th, 2nd, 8th, 2nd, 1st, 7th, 9th, 7th, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 7th, 5th, 1st, 2nd, 1st and 1st, 2nd, 14th, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, and 11th. That’s 42 of the last 46 (91%) coming from the top 10 including 22 from the pole and 35 of 46 (76%) from the Fast 6.
Since 2020, the year the Aeroscreen debuted, 13 of the 21 races (62%) have been won via a front row starter including 9 of the last 11 (82%) and 5 of the 7 (71%) last year. 15 of the 21 (71%) were won from a Fast Six starter while 19 of the last 21 (90%) from the top 10.
If you fail to get out of the first round on Saturday, you basically have no shot at a win. You also have no shot at a podium either. Out of the last 6 years (18 podiums), 17 of the 18 trophies were given to a Fast Six starter. The only time it wasn’t was when Josef Newgarden won from 7th in 2017.
Podium Starters Since 2016:
2022: 2nd, 3rd, 1st
2021: 3rd, 4th, 5th
2019: 1st, 3rd, 5th
2018: 1st, 4th, 5th
2017: 7th, 4th, 3rd
2016: 1st, 6th, 3rd
He has two straight top two finishes here including a 2021 win. Three of his wins in 2021 came on natural road courses like this one. Palou has four top five finishes in his last five starts dating back to last season.
He’s never won at Barber before, but Dixon does have six runner-up’s. Furthermore, he’s had a podium in 9 of 12 tries and was fifth just last year and third the year prior.
He started on the pole in 2021 and if not for having an early race puncture, he likely would have won. He did win last year with his two Barber finishes being 4th and 1st respectively.
He was runner-up in 2021 and fourth last year to give him eight top fives in his last nine Barber starts. The only thing is, his second place run in 2021 was his first podium here since 2013 too. Power is tied with Palou (11) for most podium finishes on natural road courses since 2020.
6th last year. However, he had a pair of wins on these types of tracks in 2022 and accumulated the most points overall on them too.
He’s eyeing a bounceback season that so far, has been anything but. While he’s never won at Barber before either, he does have two fifth place finishes in five years and ninth a season ago. In 2021, he qualified on the front row before pitting at the wrong time for his first stop. Only Power and Palou’s 11 podiums are more than Rossi’s 8 over the last three seasons.
His best races were on these types of tracks last season. He finished 10th here as a rookie and backed that up with a seventh place run last season. Grosjean has three podiums on these types of tracks over the last two years.
He won at Indy in 2021, sixth in this very race that season too before leading the most laps (57) from the pole and rounding out the podium last season.
Meyer Shank Racing
Helio Castroneves won the inaugural race here and while he was only 21st last year, he did have 6 top 7’s in his 8 prior starts. His teammate, Simon Pagenaud, has 9 top 10’s in 11 starts here including a 2016 win.
Worth a look. Rahal has five top eight’s in his last seven Barber starts.
These are his best tracks. Ilott was in Row 6 at Barber last year (11th), qualified in Road America (12th) as well as 7th at Indy 1, 10th in Mid-Ohio, 19th in Indy 2, 14th in Portland and on the front row in Laguna Seca. If he can finish these races, watch out.
He seems to have lost a bit of a step in Barber. After a stretch of five straight top four finishes here including three wins, the Aeroscreen has negated his advantage with finishes of 23rd and 14th respectively. He’s not made the Fast Six here in qualifying since his 2018 win. He was 50-50 on top fives for natural road courses last year too.
He has 3 wins which is tied for second most on natural road courses since the start of the 2020 season. However, none of which occurred here. Herta’s three Barber finishes have been 24th, 22nd and 10th respectively. He’s started in Row 5 for each.
He was 7th, 8th and 12th in his three Barber tries.
His three Barber finishes are 10th, 21st and 16th respectively.
His four Barber finishes are 20th, 18th, 16th and 19th respectively.
20th last year.
22nd last year and not enough of a sample size to give him much thought this year.
17th as a rookie a year ago.