Defending race winner and series champion, Simon Pagenaud, ran fastest in the morning… er, excuse me, the afternoon practice session today at Barber Motorsports Park. The first day of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is running on an hour delay. Not confusing at all for this Eastern-time-zoner.
Seriously though, this first practice was kind of a cake walk for those drivers who have found victory in sunny Alabama previously. Pagenaud, as mentioned, came out the quickest and led his newest teammate Josef Newgarden by .718 of a second. The driver of the No. 1 Menard’s Chevy for Team Penske is familiar with the front of the pack as he started from the pole last year before his first win at this art-infused race track that he refers to as, “the amusement park of racing.”
While Pagenaud won the pole in 2016 for being quickest in the last round of qualifying, the track record for fastest lap was achieved by fellow Frenchman, Sebastien Bourdais (No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Chevy, Dale Coyne Racing) earlier in the rounds last year. We still have time to make up if the field wants to try and break that time of 1:06.7262 this weekend. Speaking of Bourdais’, he was the cause of the only red flag in the practice session, which was called for debris when a portion of a banner was left on the track. Bourdais had some front wing damage due to contact with the wall on track, but made it back to the pits under his own power.
I wanted to chat a bit more about Newgarden, so let’s jump back to that. He’s driving the No.2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevy this weekend, complete with a new and very sharp black livery with green accents. The Nashville-native picked up his initial win at Barber in 2015, while driving for Ed Carpenter Racing. He made strides at the last IndyCar event when he earned his first podium with Team Penske, on the streets of Long Beach. I fully expect to see Newgarden make a clean and impressive qualifying effort tomorrow – potentially with a result of his first pole on a road & street course. His first and only career pole in the series was at the Milwaukee Mile back in 2015.
The Penske domination of the first practice continued down to P3 and P4 with Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Chevy) and Helio Castroneves (No. 3 AAA Insurance Chevy) claiming spots. Castroneves won the inaugural race at Barber back in 2010 and Power won back-to-back years after that in 2011 and 2012.
Power is not the only driver to claim wins two seasons in a row here however. Ryan Hunter-Reay accomplished it in 2013 and 2014. He is also the only current non-Penske driver to win at Barber. And you can bet he’s eager to get back in the limelight. Defending his race winner title in 2014 led to a joyous celebration in victory lane that left this beat writer’s skinny jeans spotted with champagne! That was my first year covering the IndyCar series in an official capacity and that memory is still a very vivid one. Sadly, that spraying of champagne hasn’t happened for RHR since his victory at Pocono Raceway in 2015.
It’s interesting to note that Power, Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda), and Pagenaud have won races at Barber from the pole and the other four years, this contest was won from P3 twice, P5 once, and P9 once… so qualifying position will be very important this weekend.
Honda drivers finished out the Top 10 in practice, and make no doubt that they are aiming to win at this Honda-sponsored race. Alexander Rossi (No. 98 Curb Honda) represented Andretti Autosport in P5, alongside his aforementioned teammate Hunter-Reay in P6. P7 went to Graham Rahal (No. 15 Mi-Jack, RLL Racing), P8 to James Hinchcliffe (No. 5 Arrow, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Bourdais in P9, and finally Scott Dixon in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda with Ganassi rounding out the Top 10.
Six different teams represented in the top of the pack for practice – these results give me hope that we will see another intense battle this weekend on track, keeping in the tradition of IndyCar racing at Barber Motorsports Park!
Photo: Bret Kelley/IndyCar