Paddock Buzz: Power, Dixon Jazzed with Solid Season Starts

Updated: 

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing might have won Sunday’s season-opening NTT INDYCAR SERIES race at Barber Motorsports Park, but two former season champions, including the reigning champion, put themselves in terrific position to again contend for the title.

Will Power of Team Penske and defending series champion Scott Dixon – Palou’s teammate – finished second and third, respectively, in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst, and the reward was made more significant by the troubles of other projected title contenders.

Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport finished ninth while former series champions Josef Newgarden of Team Penske and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay were knocked out of the race in a first-lap crash.

Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, another recent former champion, finished 12th.

For Power, the first step to a season was finally one in the right direction. In the past five years, his average finish in the opener was 13.6, and he had finished 14th, 21st and 11th in the previous three races at this track. As drivers in this competitive series know, slow starts often lead to frustrating finishes, and Power knows all about that lately.

“We’ve had a pretty bad start to the year the past four years, so it’s awesome to get a really good start to the season,” said Power, who scored his best Barber finish since winning in 2012. “I said to (the crew), if we do this week in week out, just solid races with no mistakes, we will absolutely have a great chance at winning the championship.”

Power won his only series championship in 2014. He said he couldn’t match the speed of Palou, particularly in the first segment when the Spaniard jumped to a big lead. Power said his slight mistake in the late going kept him from finishing any closer than four-tenths of a second.

Dixon’s pursuit of a record-tying seventh series championship didn’t start with much fanfare, but Barber Motorsports Park continued to be a good place for him. Sunday’s third-place finish was his third in 11 events, and he has finished second eight times.

Dixon still hasn’t won at Barber, but he can accept consistent success nonetheless, especially when on this day his car struggled to receive telemetry after a local power outage.

“The PNC car was really good, (but) it was definitely a track-position race,” he said. “I think we had more pace than (Power), but we just couldn’t (catch him). You’ve got Push-to-Pass; they’ve got push to defend, so it becomes super tricky.”

Per usual, Dixon saw the big picture. “A great points day for all of us,” he said.

Tough Start to Competitive Season

Newgarden took responsibility for the first-lap crash that put himself and others in a tough championship hole.

The two-time series champion lost control coming up the hill leading to Turn 5. He spun and not in the direction that was best for the 16 cars trailing him.

“I got loose in the wake (of the leaders),” Newgarden said. “I thought I had the car (under control), and then I touched the grass and I think once I (did that) it pitched me sideways.”

First to strike Newgarden’s Chevrolet was fellow title hopeful Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport, but there was contact aplenty in the ensuing seconds. Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Andretti Autosport Honda pounded the front end of Newgarden’s car, and Arrow McLaren SP’s Felix Rosenqvist ran over the right front corner of Max Chilton’s Carlin Chevrolet, with Rosenqvist’s Honda lifting high in the air.

Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing spun, and James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport bounced of the left side of Jimmie Johnson’s Chip Ganassi Racing machine. Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing deftly knifed his way through the debris. Johnson did well in that regard, too.

“I was waiting for Newgarden to spin somewhere and he spun in the same place,” Herta said. “I had to go some direction. I had Conor (Daly) on my right, so I couldn’t go right.

“Man, it sucks.”

Said Newgarden: “I feel bad for anyone who got involved in that. My mess created a bigger mess.”

Officially, only Newgarden and Hunter-Reay were knocked out of the race. Crews of the other cars were repaired and finished many laps down.

For Herta, it was the end to a bad weekend. The third-place finish in last year’s championship standings slid through Turn 2 in a Saturday practice, his car going through the gravel trap and hitting the barrier. He finished 22nd in the race.

“I’m ready to get out of here and start thinking about St. Pete,” he said of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which begins with practice Friday afternoon. The 100-lap race is Sunday at noon ET on NBC.

As will be the case all season, St. Petersburg practices and qualifying will be available on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. Signup is available at www.peacocktv.com and $4.99 per month.

Johnson Takes Debut in Stride, Accomplishes Goals

Entering his first INDYCAR race, Jimmie Johnson said he didn’t want to start last. He accomplished that goal by landing the 21st starting position.

Leading into Sunday’s race, Johnson said that a “victory” to him would be finishing all 90 laps. He was kidding, but he really wasn’t.

Johnson finished 19th in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, three laps down. Technically, he didn’t complete all 90 laps, but effectively, what Johnson was saying was, he wanted to complete the race. In that regard, it was mission accomplished for the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.

But it wasn’t easy. Johnson’s navigation skills were immediately put to the test on Lap 1 when he had to weave his way through the five-car accident reminiscent of many NASCAR days on the superspeedway tracks of Daytona and Talladega, which feature “the big one.” Johnson made it through the wreckage with just the relatively minor contact on his left side.

“I’m very happy to have finished,” Johnson said. “There were two pretty scary moments in the race; one at the start going into Turn 5 when there was chaos. I bounced off a few cars, but nothing really happened to mine, evidently. Very fortunate there.”

The second moment came on Lap 9. Johnson got a taste of how challenging the NTT INDYCAR SERIES can be when he got caught in the traffic of Rinus VeeKay. Johnson raced into the uphill Turn 13 and lost control. He spun without hitting anything, coming to a complete stop. That’s when Johnson lost his first lap as he struggled to refire his car.

Johnson noted that two of the biggest challenges of the day were with the car itself. First was the physicality, for which he trained all offseason. Johnson said the training worked and that he felt like he could have raced for a few more laps even if his left hand was beginning to blister.

Second was the in-car capabilities that aren’t available to a driver in a stock car. Johnson was using his tools but tuning his car in the wrong direction. His crew saw what was happening and informed him of the mistake, and he said once he corrected the issue he was back on pace.

“Just a ton of learning experiences throughout the day,” Johnson said. “I’m very thankful for this opportunity that Chip (Ganassi) has given me, everybody at CGR and the great support from Carvana and the American Legion. These laps are so important to me … I just can’t say too many times how different this is and how specialized this craft is and how good these drivers are in the series.”

Johnson received two massive thumbs-up from his boss, Chip Ganassi, who was celebrating in Victory Circle with Palou, Johnson’s teammate.

“What a great leader he is,” Ganassi said. “What a great guy. It really makes me mad to know what I was up against in NASCAR all those years. Now I understand why he won seven championships. The guy is the hardest worker I know, and he never stops. He’s having a great time. He’s got a hill to climb, but he’s gonna do it.”

Other Sunday Notes:

From the fans