This article was originally published on MTAF Wheels, which is now dark. Thank you for enjoying it here, through the Live Full Throttle Archives.
Two Americans and a Kiwi walk into Victory Circle… stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Anyone? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
This weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park was hands down, the most entertaining race of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, thus far. So much so, that I find myself in the happiest and goofiest of moods, coming up with ridiculous lead-in’s like the one I started this article with above, and feeling unapologetic for its cheesy delivery because frankly… life is short, I’m having far too much fun, and I want you to join me.
CFH Racing & Newgarden Win at Barber
I know someone else that is having just as great a start to their week – likely even better – and that’s Josef Newgarden. The CFH Racing driver of the No. 67 Chevrolet, brought the newly formed team a win in its first season and after only four races. The American team, with their headquarters in Speedway, IN also landed a P11 finish with their second car, the No. 20 piloted by Luca Filippi.
The victory at Barber Motorsports Park yesterday, is the first career win for Newgarden and bumps him up to 4th in points. The permanent Birmingham, AL road course is one that Newgarden considers his “home track”, being a native of Nashville, TN a short 3 hours away.
The win was a long time coming for the 24-year old, who worked his way through Indy Lights, capturing the Championship in 2011 and graduating to IndyCar with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in 2012. He has been with SFH throughout his IndyCar career, merging with Ed Carpenter Racing for the 2015 season and creating the two-car team aforementioned. Newgarden dominated on track this weekend, leading 46 of the 90 laps. If #HIGPA was a stock, Newgarden would be the majority shareholder… so it only makes sense that he took home the hardware.
IndyCar Finding It’s Groove with Aerokits
I have a theory as to why today’s race was so incredible and felt like the IndyCar we have fallen in love with, competition-wise, over the past 3 years. Indulge me, if you will…
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was the first race of the season and the first time drivers and teams were in a competitive environment with the new aero kits. There was only one way to find out what they could take – drive them like there’s no tomorrow. And that they did. They were feeling out the aero kits in a true race environment, something you simply can’t do in testing. Drivers and teams tested limits and lap-by-lap, learned what the cars were capable of, how they would change with handling and how sturdy, or in many cases, fragile they were.
The Grand Prix of Louisiana provided less than optimal weather conditions. Over half the laps were yellow and we ended up in a timed race situation, making it hard to say how competition would truly pan out on the flat road course. We really won’t know what the IndyCars are capable of at NOLA Motorsports Park until we get back there in 2016. The series can only hope for drier conditions and more green flag racing.
Moving on to sunny-skied California, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was the driver’s opportunity to show that they could race without debris issues and without contact between their individual aero kits. They were nearly flawless minus one caution at the very start. They showed their talent and restraint simultaneously with all 23 cars finishing.
All 23 DW-12s finished at Barber Motorsports Park this weekend as well, with only two drivers a lap down as the checkered flags waved. Yesterday was IndyCar’s chance to really put on a show… and boy, did they! At this point in the season, with a few races under their belts… er, wheels… they knew how far they could push the cars, the level of contact that would allow them to race at a competitive and entertaining level, but without debris issues (the alterations of aero kits assisted toward that achievement as well), and they were comfortable enough to really start battling one another for position with confidence about how the cars would react. The results were as well-mixed as we’ve seen this season, with an even number of Chevys & Hondas in the Top 10, and their distribution fairly spaced. There were also 7 different teams represented in that Top 10. Barber is not known for its forgiving nature with passing and yet, it yielded the best position contesting I’ve seen all year!
Rahal Impresses as he Battles with the Best
My favorite driver to watch battle for said positions was Graham Rahal, in the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake-sponsored RLL Honda. Rahal landed his first podium since Race 1 of the Dual in Detroit on Belle Isle in 2014, where he had the same result. Watching him compete for position with Power and Dixon was impressive, nerve-racking and highly entertaining. This kid has “it”, and it seems like he’s finally piecing things together. Could running on reds more often be the key to making the Honda aero kit competitive with Chevy’s? I don’t know, I’m not a strategist or an engineer, but it sure as heck seemed to work today for Rahal!
Fun fact: today’s P2 finish by Rahal was the first Honda podium in 2015 achieved under a green flag finish. What makes it that much more impressive is that the result came from the one-car team of RLL Racing.
Drivers with History at Barber Round Out Top 5
Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing remains a Barber bridesmaid. He finished P3 and kept the tradition alive at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Barber: the driver of the No.9 is now 6 for 6 on podium finishes without a win here, for those of you counting. Dixon is running 3rd in the overall points standings. This is his second consecutive weekend on the podium – last week’s coming in the form of victory in Long Beach.
Team Penske’s usual presence was less noticeable at the front of the pack today, with reigning series champion Will Power finishing the highest of the four drivers, in P4. That finish was actually incredibly impressive, given that he side-swiped Sato coming out of the pits early on, went through the gravel off Turn 2, and then served a drive-through penalty for the avoidable contact. The 3-time pole-sitter and 2-time race winner at Barber had a rough start but kept his nose down, made clean maneuvers w clear strategy and had the patience to gain that time back and fight to the front. He was very gracious post-race, stating:
“I feel bad for what happened to Sato. I didn’t see him, which was unfortunate… We turned a bad day into a good day, absolutely. We could have won, but it was a bit of a mixed up day anyway. I am really excited for the Verizon guys, Chevrolet and our sponsors that we finished fourth.” – Will Power, Team Penske
Ryan Hunter-Reay sat on the pole here in 2013 and won the race in Alabama the past two seasons and one of the storylines this weekend was the question of whether he could make it a three-peat. That did not happen, but he did end up finishing P5 after dismal qualifying results that started him at the back of the pack in P18. Hunter-Reay spoke about the raceday and his mentality going into it, explaining that they did as good as they could have done, worked on saving fuel and just practicing discipline through the frustration. He feels that the team and Honda are both making progress.
Progress towards leveling the playing field and keeping competition tight and results unpredictable is a very good thing, and not just for their team… but for the series, the fans and the IndyCar product as a whole.