Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) race preview

Romain Grosjean will lead the field to green in Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radion Network). It’s his third career NTT INDYCAR SERIES pole, but first at the Barber Motorsports Park. In fact, Grosjean is the eighth straight different driver to win a pole on the 2.3-mile picturesque facility, but only three of the previous seven came away victorious in the pole-to-win double dipper.

Grosjean is 0-for-2 in his previous two pole winning tries. Will Sunday’s fourth race of the season allow Grosjean to score his first career INDYCAR win in his 34th try?

He hopes so.

“I think we want to be a championship contender at the end of the year, so we used two mulligans in the season, so we’ve got to be here every race,” he says.

“We’ve shown that the pace is there, which helps a lot to be at the front, but 100 percent want to score some points and finish the race. If it’s first, second, third, fourth, fifth, we don’t know, but what we know is we need to keep scoring points and be consistent for the championship.”

Grosjean is having fun again. He hopes to carry that over to a maiden trip to victory lane.

However, he’ll have some hungry drivers around him. The last two winners here will start either alongside (Alex Palou) or right behind him (Pato O’Ward).

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.

Palou won his first race here in 2021 and in the return trip a year ago, was runner-up to O’Ward.

“I love this place,” boasted Palou who has 16 top five finishes and 15 podiums in 36 starts with Chip Ganassi Racing.

This place is a challenging one. While it may look pristine from onlookers, the Augusta of INDYCAR, to those behind the wheel, it’s a demanding circuit to race on.

“Its hard because this track is high commitment, you need confidence,” fourth place starter Scott McLaughlin says. “This place is hard on the neck because of the high speed.

“I really put Barber down to it’s one of the most committed tracks I’ve ever driven on. From a perspective of like racing Supercars at Bathurst, the commitment, laps there, this is a similar level in terms of committing to a lap, trusting what you have underneath you, even if you don’t understand what’s underneath you as well, which is the beauty of INDYCAR.

“Regardless if I’ve done a heap of laps here in testing or not, it’s all about flow, getting into a rhythm. It’s a bit like playing a guitar or drums, whatever, you want to get into a rhythm of hitting your laps, learning how long the tires take to warm up. It’s hard when they stop and start like that.”

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

Getting a rhythm is what likely will happen early on Sunday. Both Grosjean and Palou admit that they’ll take care of each other at the start of the race.

“Yeah, it’s a long race, 90 laps here,” Palou said. “It’s going to be tough for tires physically and everything, so there’s no reason why we should be aggressive at the beginning. You never know what’s going to happen, but yeah, I think I can let the race go a little bit at the beginning, focus on our pace, on our strategy, and hopefully we can fight for the win at the end.”

Grosjean agreed.

“You know, it all depends how the car feels and what you’ve got under your feet,” he admitted. “There’s going to be rain tonight, so the track is going to be different tomorrow.

“The good news is that I’ve been racing Alex (Palou) for a while, and it’s been always clean and nice with him. There’s definitely drivers that you’re a bit more careful with, but with Alex, I think it’s a good front row. Again, it’s a Honda-powered front row, so that’s a very good job.

“Tomorrow, like I say, turning the wheel here for 90 laps is a challenge, so it’s not all about the first 10 laps.”

Which makes Barber more about strategy than anything else.

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.

What happens on Sunday? Which tire is the preferred one? Right now, despite two practice sessions and three rounds of qualifying, it’s anyone’s guess.

“I think that’s the beauty of INDYCAR; you never know what you’re going to get,” Grosjean said. “We all know that you’ve got the degradation on the reds, so that’s going to be a question, are they going to fall apart after 10 laps, are they going to be able to do a full stint. That’s really a big question.”

Palou said that nobody in INDYCAR at the moment knows which is the right strategy to go with at the moment.

“We only did like four or five laps on the alternates, and been really good so far, but the issue starts coming in when you do like 10, 12 laps, so we’ll see tomorrow in the warmup,” admitted Palou. “I don’t think we’ll know anything until the race. But yeah, that’s the beauty about INDYCAR.”

Does that play a role into Scott Dixon? He seems to always find a way to victory in these types of unpredictable races. Dixon comes into Sunday’s race 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.

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