The fourth event of the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season takes place this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, one of the most picturesque venues in motorsports.
Marcus Ericsson is the series points leader ahead of Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou, the two most recent winners of races at the 17-turn, 2.3-mile permanent road course in Birmingham, Alabama. Ericsson seeks his first victory at Barber Motorsports Park.
SEE: Event Details
Last year’s race saw five lead changes among four drivers, but it was more competitive than even that. An event-record 21 cars were on the lead lap at the finish, with all competitors still active in the race.
Six drivers who have combined to win nine Barber Motorsports Park races are entered.
Teams likely will need to decide between making this a two- or three-stop race, which creates diversity in strategies. For those making only two stops, the first trip to pit road should come on Lap 30.
A look at five storylines entering the weekend, plus the full weekend schedule follows:
The Place of Pato and Palou
Past performance is often a strong indicator of the future in this series, with drivers saying they feel more comfortable and energized at some venues more than others. Barber Motorsports has been particularly kind to Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Racing Chevrolet) and Alex Palou (No. 10 Ridgeline Lubricants Honda).
O’Ward won last year’s race by .9800 of a second over Palou. The year prior, it was Palou going to victory lane with O’Ward earning the NTT P1 Award as the event’s fastest qualifier. That lap of 1 minute, 5.5019 seconds, 125.744 mph stands as the track record, and O’Ward completed the 90 laps in record time (1 hour, 48:39.4368 seconds). O’Ward also has the fastest race lap in event history at 1 minute, 6.8182 seconds.
“It’s a very fast, very flowy track, and it’s easy to enjoy what a race car has to offer around that place,” O’Ward said.
Palou’s victory in 2021 was the first win of his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career. That year, he subsequently won races at Road America and Portland International Raceway en route to his first series championship.
As Usual, Team Penske Looms
Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) has won a series-high three races at Barber Motorsports Park, yet only two of them came as a Team Penske driver. Think that hurts Team Penske’s chances of winning Sunday? Think again.
Roger Penske’s organization has won a record six times at the track, including twice with Will Power at the wheel of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (2011, 2012) and once each with Helio Castroneves (2010) and Simon Pagenaud (2016). Newgarden’s wins came in 2017 and 2018. Newgarden also won with Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing in 2015.
Power has won a series-leading four poles at Barber Motorsports Park, although his most recent was in 2017. The team has similarly failed to show well in recent races, earning only one podium finish in the past three events (Power finished second in 2021). No Penske driver has won a pole at Barber since Newgarden won from that spot in 2018.
Finally, a Dixon Breakthrough?
You want an anomaly? Try explaining how Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) has never won a race at Barber Motorsports Park.
The INDYCAR SERIES has staged 12 races at the track on the east side of Birmingham, and somehow Dixon has never reached Victory Lane. But he’s been close – oh, so close.
Dixon finished second each of the first four years (2010-13) and then finished third the next two years. In all, he has nine top-three finishes in 12 starts. He also is the only driver to have completed every lap in INDYCAR SERIES history at Barber Motorsports Park.
As impressive is Dixon’s qualifying over the years, until last year, he hadn’t started outside the top six, and seven of those were inside the top four. Yet, he’s never started on the front row, much less won a pole. Strange, right?
Remember, Dixon has won 53 series races in his career, a total that ranks second only to A.J. Foyt in history. He has won on 25 circuits in all, but the current tracks he has not conquered are: the St. Petersburg street course, Iowa Speedway, Portland International Raceway, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and, of course, the new downtown circuit in Detroit.
A Surprise Winner?
It can be argued that there are fewer and fewer drivers who could be called “a surprise winner” as Kyle Kirkwood’s victory in this month’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach in Andretti Autosport’s No. 27 AutoNation Honda pushed the total to 15 drivers (out of 27 in this week’s field) who have won races in this series. Not only have three different drivers won races this season, they represent three different teams.
Barber Motorsports Park has seen one driver win his first series race – Alex Palou in 2021 – but this has been an event dominated by veterans. Last year, 13 of the top-finishing 14 drivers were former winners. Romain Grosjean was the exception, finishing seventh in Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda.
Grosjean has posted a pair of top-10 finishes at this track, making him a likely choice to become the latest driver to win a race in this series. He finished second at Long Beach and had quality drives in the first two races of the season, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding and the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Other non-winners have had success at Barber in INDY NXT by Firestone. David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Trucking Honda) won the second series race in 2021. Benjamin Pedersen (No. 55 AJ Foyt Racing/Sexton Properties Chevrolet) twice finished second – once in 2021, another in 2022 -- and Devlin DeFrancesco (No. 29 Damon Honda) twice finished third in 2021. Sting Ray Robb (No. 51 biohaven Honda) finished third in 2022.
A Rain Option
Through wind tunnel testing, Dallara developed a bespoke water spray system designed to mitigate water on the INDYCAR SERIES’ aeroscreen, and it will be available to teams for the first time this weekend as a chance of rain is in the forecast. Officially, the piece added to the nose of the cars is known as a damper cover turning vane.
The water pattern on the screen was videoed by a camera in the cockpit, positioned to give the view of the drivers. Alexander Rossi was the driver representative at the test.
The water pattern was studied in both straight-ahead and yaw conditions, and it was deemed that the yaw condition was most important as it represented slow-speed corners, which is where the drivers have had the biggest problem with water not clearing from the screen. In faster sections, there is so much spray in the air that drivers find it difficult to see even without the aeroscreen.
The vanes are an option piece, but INDYCAR can mandate its use if it is raining or if there is a significant threat of rain.
The Weekend Schedule
The intensity of a race weekend is about to rachet up with the return of INDY NXT by Firestone, which will stage its second event of the season at Barber Motorsports Park.
The action of the two series begins Friday with INDY NXT rolling off at 2:40 p.m. ET followed by the NTT INDYCAR SERIES at 3:40 p.m. Saturday will feature alternating between INDY NXT practice at 11 a.m. followed by INDYCAR SERIES practice at noon, INDY NXT qualifying at 2:20 p.m. and NTT INDYCAR SERIES NTT P1 Award qualifying at 3 p.m. ET.
Sunday, INDY NXT stages its 35-lap race at 12:55 p.m., with the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix for the INDYCAR SERIES at 3 p.m.
Live coverage of the INDYCAR SERIES race will be on NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR LIVE and the INDYCAR Radio Network. Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network will have all practice and qualifying sessions, including Sunday’s 30-minute warmup session at noon ET.
Follow all INDY NXT action on INDY Live and the INDYCAR Radio Network, with Sunday’s race airing on Peacock.