5 things I’m now watching for Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Dixon Doing Dixon Things

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?

So far, so good. He was fourth in both practice sessions and qualified his No. 9 Dallara-Honda in fifth. This was his 12th Fast Six appearance in 13 Barber tries and it just feels like he’s lurking right now.

It’s also not like Dixon hasn’t been close at Barber though either. In those 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?

Pit lane on the final stops proved to be the biggest factor in the race. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site


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.

Alex Palou this weekend at Barber. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Good Points Opportunities for O’Ward, Palou

As a result of Marcus Ericsson starting in Row 7, this is a great opportunity for Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou to potentially take over the NTT INDYCAR SERIES points lead heading into the Month of May. They’ll make up 2 of the top 3 starting spots for Sunday’s race with Palou in second and O’Ward in third.

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.

5 of the last 6 races have been won via a top four starter including all 3 this season. Pole sitter Romain Grosjean is 0-for-33 in INDYCAR. Just 3 of the last 20 races have been won from the pole at that. Only 5 of the 12 Barber races too were won from the pole.

Palou won from third in 2021 while O’Ward won from second last year. They’re back again and can put the pressure not only on Grosjean, but Ericsson too.

Outside of his win a year ago, O’Ward was fourth in 2021. Palou was runner-up last year and won in 2021. With them being 15 points (O’Ward) and 19 (Palou) behind Ericsson, that gap could dwindle greatly on Sunday.

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

Marcus Ericsson this weekend at Barber. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

How Far Marcus Ericsson Can Climb

No one will debate that Marucs Ericsson’s race craft is as good as it comes in the series. Unfortunately, we have to see it a lot more than he’d like. He cited qualifying in the offseason as a major area of weakness that was keeping him from getting to where he wanted to go which is why his race craft is always shining.

His Achilles heel in 2022 was in that aspect. 9 times did he started 12th or worse including 5 times in the final 7 races. It’s why he went from 6 top 5’s in the first 10 races this season and was leading the points to 4th. He had no top 5 finishes over the final 7 race stretch. While he had 3 top 10’s, it was the lack of top 5’s that allowed everyone else to catch up.

Consistently coming from behind was the culprit. Imagine if he started closer to the front in those races. It’s not like he wasn’t a hard charger. He went from 14th to 3rd in Texas, 18th to 4th in the GMR Grand Prix, 13th to 6th in Mid-Ohio, 15th to 6th in Iowa 2, 25th to 11th in the Gallagher Grand Prix.

“I think us as a team, it’s been one of our weaknesses the last couple years in that we’re not qualifying as high as we should,” he said. “Race day I’m not scared of anyone. I think on the 8 car we’re always going forward in the races; we’re always very strong in the races.

“It’s no secret that we need to improve on qualifying day. That is us in the 8 car but also Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole. I think if we can all improve, it’s going to help us. These days as well, INDYCAR is becoming more and more competitive. So many good drivers and teams. If you start mid pack, yeah, it might be long races, but to win a race from mid pack is getting harder and harder.

“It’s been one of the big focus areas in the off-season, to try to find things in the setup, in the way to understand the tires, stuff like that, to mainly improve our qualifying performance. It’s been a big focus for us. It’s going to be interesting this week to see if we have found some things that are going to work, then apply that throughout the season.”

This year, he’s qualified fourth in St. Pete and second in Long Beach. He was on the podium both days. In Texas, he started 16th. He finished 8th. Now, he starts 13th. How far can he climb?

Scott Dixon started 13th and finished fifth in this race last year. Ericsson came from 20th to finish seventh in 2019. While he only finished 12th from that same spot a year ago, how far can he climb and minimize the damage that Palou and O’Ward are certainly going to do.

Romain Grosjean this weekend at Barber. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can Grosjean Pull Out 1st Win?

Romain Grosjean scored his third career pole on Saturday at Barber. He’s 0-for-2 in regards to victories in those other two tries. He finished runner-up on the IMS road course in 2021 and 18th on the streets of St. Pete in this year’s season opener. However, he led 31 of 71 laps that day and if not for a late race incident on Lap 71 of 100 on those Florida streets with Scott McLaughlin while battling for the lead, maybe he’d have a won by now.

Instead, he’s 0-for-33. He does have four runner-up finishes and a pair of Top-10 results in two Barber starts in this career. He also crashed while running in the top five with two laps remaining in Texas and was runner-up the last time out in Long Beach.

If Grosjean is going to win, it’s going to be now.

He has a fresh engine and was sixth in practice on Saturday. The only thing is, we’ve seen just 5 pole winners win at Barber and only 3 in the last 20 INDYCAR races overall.

Also, the last 2 Barber winners start right alongside (Alex Palou) and behind (Pato O’Ward).

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