NTT IndyCar Series: The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Preview

2019 polesitter and race winner Takuma Sato returns to Barber Motorsports Park. © [Andy Clary/ Spacesuit Media]

2019 polesitter and race winner Takuma Sato returns to Barber Motorsports Park. © [Andy Clary/ Spacesuit Media]

by Paul Gohde

  After surviving a 2020 season that was laced with changes, postponements and cancellations due to the pandemic, IndyCar has put together a strong schedule of 17 races for 2021 with venues such as Long Beach, Portland, Belle Isle and Laguna Seca returning to the fold along with a bit shaky Toronto event that depends more than the others on the next round of pandemic rules for Canadian entry. The Honda Grand Prix of Alabama trades places with St. Petersburg and is the season opener for the first time.

Six-time series champion Scott Dixon leads a strong roster of returning veterans that includes Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud. Next-generation returnees include Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay.

Whether IndyCar (as well as NASCAR, IMSA and others) can maintain its schedule without pandemic interruption will be something to watch as the season moves on.

Race facts: Barber is a 2.3-mile, 17-turn natural road course near Birmingham, Alabama that was originally built for motorcycle competition. Sunday’s 90-lap, 207-mile race will be the 11th IndyCar race there, with the 2010 inaugural captured by Helio Castroneves.

Last Barber race: Indy cars last raced at Barber in 2019 (the 2020 race was cancelled by the pandemic) when pole-winner Takuma Sato took his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda for what looked to many like a joy ride, leading 74/90 laps while putting Scott Dixon in the runner-up spot here for the sixth time.  Sato had one scare as an off-course adventure with five laps remaining got his attention. “It probably looked easy winning from the pole, but I wasn’t cruising,” explained the then 42-year-old veteran. “I was pushing hard, using push-to-pass the last 10 laps and I had a little moment there in turn eight.” Sato held off a charging Dixon for the with Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Josef Newgarden trailing.

Upcoming season: As noted above, 17 races will fill the dance-card for IndyCar teams barring any intrusions from lingering pandemic issues. Nashville’s introduction to the schedule presents an interesting street-course challenge as the cars will race across a long bridge over the Cumberland River.

Entries: Twenty-four cars are scheduled to start Sunday’s NTT Series opener with one of the strongest fields to begin a season in recent years.

Beside NASCAR vet Jimmie Johnson’s first effort at open-wheel competition for Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, the usual entries are spiced with the likes of F1 refugee, Switzerland’s Romain Grosjean for Dale Coyne RWR Honda (both newcomers on a road course/street course-only schedule), and Team Penske Chevy’s full-season import, New Zealand’s Scott McLaughlin…IndyCar certainly presents fans with an interesting mix of entries to begin the season.

Notes: TV…Saturday-Qualifying-NBCSN-(tape-delay)-10:00 pm (ET)…Sunday-Race coverage-NBC Network-2:00 pm–(live)…Five entered drivers: Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Power, Rahal and Sato, have won at Barber…Team Penske has won here six times with Andretti Autosport next with two…Santino Ferrucci has left open wheel racing to compete in NASCAR’s Xfinity series, but is entered in the Indianapolis 500 for Rahal Letterman Lanigan…

Our Take: With veterans Pagenaud, Power, Sato and Rahal facing a revved-up group of young bucks hoping to unseat Dixon from his annual (almost) top rung in the standings, anything can happen. O’Ward, Herta, VeeKay and Alex Palou are strong challengers for race wins. We’ll find out by Race 17 at Laguna Seca if any of those youngsters can find that magic balance of winning some races and finishing high in others, enough to cop a series’ championship. It will be an interesting season on several accounts.

“They said it”: Jay Frye, IndyCar President: “It’s hard to know where to start with our rookie class. There’s a seven-time rookie (Jimmie Johnson), a three-time champion (Scott McLaughlin) and a ten-year F1 veteran (Romain Grosjean). This might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing that we see something like this. They are great people on and off the track. They’ve taken this (the transition to IndyCar competition) very seriously and it’s going to be amazing to watch their progress over the course of the year…We’ve also got three Hall of Famers coming back (to race) one way or another. Tony (Kanaan), Helio (Castroneves) and Juan (Pablo Montoya). So that’s pretty cool…Our weekly car count (24 at the Barber opener) is remaining strong, and it’s going up, which bodes well for the 500. I think there’s going to be some real exciting news to come out of here shortly.”

Next Race: April 25…Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

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