Fifth Gear: Five Takeaways from Barber Race

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The first NTT INDYCAR SERIES race of the season is in the books as Alex Palou grabbed his first career win in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst on Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park.

It was a battle between two young athletes eyeing their first career win, with Palou and the No. 10 SEGI.TV Chip Ganassi Racing team’s two-stop strategy getting the best of pole sitter Pato O’Ward and the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP team’s three-stop strategy. Sandwiched between the young stars were series champions and Indy 500 winners Will Power in the No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet and Scott Dixon in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda in second and third, respectively.

The season-opening race offered a lot to take in before we get to the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this Sunday, April 25 (noon ET, live on NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). Allow us to shift our minds into Fifth Gear to see what we learned in Birmingham, Alabama.

Ganassi Finds its Winning Mojo

Chip Ganassi Racing won its 13th INDYCAR SERIES championship last season when Dixon clinched his sixth title at the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. But after dominating the front half of the season in the form of winning five of the first eight races, including the first four, CGR went winless the second half of the season.

There was some worry that maybe CGR had lost a bit of its swagger. But never fear, because team newcomer Alex Palou found Ganassi’s mojo Sunday.

“We did it!,” Palou said. “It’s amazing. All of the team did an amazing job. We had the best cars. We’re starting strong, and we’ll keep it strong. It was one of those days when everything went well. We had good fuel mileage, good tire management and good pace.”

Palou was one of three additions to the team in 2021, alongside 2004 INDYCAR SERIES champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Tony Kanaan and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

CGR, and Palou specifically, dominated the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst. The Spaniard led 56 of 90 laps en route to his first career win, and he was joined on the podium by teammate Dixon in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda, who slotted in third.

It was a performance team owner Chip Ganassi said he saw coming. The team had several offseason tests, and Palou always impressed and gave Ganassi reason to believe his decision to pluck him from Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh was the right call.

“We did some testing over the winter a few times, and he was quick all day long at these tests, even at one test quicker than Dixon. Wow,” Ganassi said. “We knew the potential was there, but you don’t know where you’re at relative to other teams or relative to a race situation.”

For a period of time, it looked as though Ganassi could sweep the podium if their two-stop pit strategy worked out properly – Palou, Dixon and Marcus Ericsson in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda were in the top five for a majority of the race, though Ericsson finished eighth. All three also made the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying on Saturday, with Palou qualifying third, Dixon fifth and Ericsson sixth.

“Three in the top eight: that’s nice. Very nice,” Ganassi said. “The guys worked hard in the offseason. The other teams are trying to knock us off after you have Dixon win the championship last year. It’s a challenge to know where you’re at until you get to the first race.”

It appears the hard work really did pay off, and any worries regarding Chip Ganassi Racing won’t center on if the team missed a step, but instead on if the team is going to dominate 2021 like it did 2020. For the second year in a row, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season opened with a Ganassi car in Victory Circle, and all three of its full-time cars already appear able to contend for wins.

It could bode well for their championship prospects yet again in 2021, though it’s possible it might not be who you expect. In the last two seasons, the winner of the season-opening race has gone on to win the Astor Challenge Cup.

O’Ward Proves AMSP Is Here To Contend

Much of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES conversation over the offseason centered around Arrow McLaren SP. After Pato O’Ward finished fourth in the points standings and on the podium four times, many began to wonder if the conversation of the series’ “big three” teams (Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport) would expand to the “big four” with the inclusion of AMSP.

Arrow McLaren SP … welcome to the club.

O’Ward’s No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet was one of the fastest cars throughout the weekend. On Saturday, O’Ward won the NTT P1 Award for qualifying on the pole position. He also set the track record at 1 minute, 5.5019 seconds. In the race Sunday, he ran the fastest lap of the race and the fastest leader lap on Lap 65 when he clocked in at 1:06.8182. Not to mention in the late stages of Sunday’s race, O’Ward cut his gap to Palou by nearly four seconds.

Clearly, this team has speed. And unlike last year, Sunday’s race wasn’t a matter of cleaning up mistakes, which cost them chances at multiple wins. It was just a strategy call that didn’t work out in their favor. When deciding to go forth with a three-stop strategy, they had every reason to believe it would take them to Victory Circle.

“I feel like we executed on what we went for strategy-wise, unfortunately it was the wrong one,” O’Ward said. “I gotta give it to these (Arrow McLaren SP) guys. We were the fastest car on track today. We’ve been the fastest car all weekend in terms of qualifying pace.”

An honorable mention goes to O’Ward’s new teammate, Felix Rosenqvist, whose debut in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet was anything but sunny.

His weekend began with a mistake on pit lane in the first practice session when he lost control of the car and hit the guardrail. It went even further south on Lap 1 when he was involved in the five-car melee and catapulted off the right front of Max Chilton’s No. 59 Carlin Chevrolet. The team fixed the car and got him back on track, but he finished 21st.

Rosenqvist, the 2019 NTT INDYCAR SERIES Rookie of the Year, also had speed. He would have advanced out of his round of qualifying with the fifth-best speed of his group had he not lost control of the car in Turn 17.

Foyt Made Biggest Gains

Last season, Sebastien Bourdais was supposed to make his debut with A.J. Foyt Enterprises, but the COVID-19-impacted schedule pushed that to later in the season. The four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion got his bearings under him at the INDYCAR Harvest GP weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October before scoring a fourth-place finish in the season finale at St. Petersburg.

Still, St. Petersburg is arguably Bourdais’ best track, and several drivers knocked themselves out of contention in that race.

Well, the result was no fluke. Have no fear, Bourdais is here.

The Frenchman backed up his season-ending run with a fifth-place finish in the No. 14 ROKiT AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet this weekend, charging hard through the field after starting 16th. Bourdais, Dixon and O’Ward all ended the 2020 season with a top-five finish and began the 2021 season with top fives, as well.

“It was a very solid day and a very solid race,” Bourdais said. “We had good pit strategy and good pit stops and good pace, so I’m really happy for the whole team. We overcame a really dodgy day starting 16th and put on a good show and made a bunch of passes. I’m really happy for everybody, and I’m looking forward to St. Pete.”

We’re one race in, and Bourdais is already proving to be the most impactful driver change in the INDYCAR paddock. Yes, you could argue Alex Palou to Chip Ganassi Racing is bigger, but CGR was already a winning organization in 2020.

Before Bourdais’ back-to-back top five’s, you have to go back to Takuma Sato in 2013 to find the last time A.J. Foyt Enterprises accomplished that feat, when Sato won at Long Beach and followed it up with a second at Sao Paulo.

This team hasn’t gone to Victory Circle since that April day in California eight years ago when Sato took Foyt’s iconic No. 14 to Victory Circle.

Things might be changing soon.

Rookies Are Wide-Eyed after NTT INDYCAR SERIES Debut

One of the most impressive rookie classes officially took on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES this past weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Not since Nigel Mansell left Formula One in 1993 to compete in INDYCAR has there been this much attention on an INDYCAR rookie.

Understandably so. The Class of 2021 includes Romain Grosjean, who spent nine full seasons in F1 and scored nine podium finishes; Scott McLaughlin, who won three consecutive Australian V8 Supercars championships from 2018-20; and Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and one of stock car racing’s greatest drivers.

The excitement level was high for these three, but they all had their expectations in line. Grosjean reigned superior of the group, scoring an impressive 10th in his series debut driving the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with RWR. He started seventh and just narrowly missing the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying.

It was his first race since his fiery crash last fall at Bahrain, and the first top 10 finish he scored since he finished ninth at Nurburgring last October for Haas F1, his only top-10 finish of the season.

“What a day,” Grosjean said. “First race in INDYCAR and first top 10, so we can be very upbeat with that. We fought at the front for some time, and we did our best. There was a lot that we learned today, and we can be very proud of our weekend.

“The rolling start wasn’t pretty. I got caught a little bit. I have to get used to it. It is not easy. You need to get the right timing, but it was fun.”

Following Grosjean in the rookie lineup was McLaughlin, who placed 14th after starting 12th in the No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet. McLaughlin’s day was his second-career NTT INDYCAR SERIES start following his debut last October at St. Petersburg, which ended in a crash.

McLaughlin admitted he was nervous for his first race of the season. In the end, it was a quiet day for the 27-year-old, which if anything is more good than bad as he looks to build a consistent first full-time season.

“I got held up a little bit mid-race, which is a little disappointing,” McLaughlin said. “I just didn’t know the capacity of the car, and I was a bit nervous. I just wanted to get one race under my belt. I ended up reasonable, but it just took too long. I can’t wait for St. Pete.”

Johnson finished the day 19th in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. From the outside, that doesn’t seem very impressive, especially for a driver of Johnson’s legendary status. But when you put it in the context of his first-ever open-wheel race, it was a solid day’s work.

Johnson eased his way through the Lap 1 carnage, and then brought out the second caution of the day on Lap 10 when he spun in the uphill Turn 13. Johnson said he wanted to complete 90 laps on Sunday, but he effectively meant he wanted to finish the race. In that regard, he did just that as he retrains his brain from two decades of driving heavy stock cars.

“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.”

A Power-ful Start to the Season

Will Power finished second in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst, just a few car lengths behind Palou as he emptied his Push-to-Pass on the last lap. He estimates that had he not had a slip-up in Turn 9 in the No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet, he could’ve been even closer to try to beat out Palou at the line.

Still, Power should consider Sunday’s second-place finish somewhat of a win. Over the last several years, Power has struggled to start the season strongly.

In the previous five first races of the season dating back to 2016, Power has finished 23rd, 19th, 10th, third and 13th. That’s an average finishing position of 13.6 in the season opener the last five years, and has put his team behind the 8-ball as it attempt to get the season going.

Not this year. The 2014 series champion is in peak form heading into St. Petersburg, where he has two wins and eight pole positions, and his confidence is already sky-high.

“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,” Power said. “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.”

Even with the rough start to the season the last several years, Power has finished no worse than fifth in the series standings since 2016. Just imagine what the 2018 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner can do by the end of the season if he starts it well.

Watch out.

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