Five Things to Watch at Season-Opening Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

Thursday, Apr 15 570

Scott Dixon’s race against history begins this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst, the season-opening event of the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.

Six months removed from winning a sixth series championship, Dixon has A.J. Foyt’s all-time record of seven titles within reach. Foyt won the last of his championships in 1979, which means his mark has stood unmatched for 42 years.

Dixon’s sixth title was fueled by a three-race winning streak to begin the 2020 season. Can he use a similar start this year in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, or will Josef Newgarden, who has won two of the past four season titles, dethrone him in Team Penske’s No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet? Or, will it be another driver – a veteran or perhaps a rising star – stealing the spotlight?

NTT P1 Award qualifying starts at 5:55 p.m. (ET) Saturday, with the race at 3 p.m. Sunday. Here are five things to watch as the drama builds this weekend:

Dixon Needs a Barber

It can be argued that Dixon is the most successful NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver in Barber Motorsports Park history and yet he doesn’t have a trophy to show for it.

Who wouldn’t take Dixon’s stat line at the 17-turn, 2.38-mile permanent road course? Eight podium finishes in 10 races, six times a race runner-up. That’s impressive by any measure.

As for reaching the top step of the Birmingham, Alabama, podium, Newgarden has been the track’s recent master, winning three of the past five races. Team Penske teammate Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Chevrolet) and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) have won two races each. Takuma Sato, who drives the No. 30 Panasonic/Shield Cleansers Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, won in 2019, the series’ most recent race there as last year’s event was canceled amid the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Power is a four-time NTT P1 Award winner at Barber, part of the 62 poles he has scored in his career. Five more such awards ties him with Mario Andretti for the sport’s all-time lead.

New Kings To Be Crowned?

Dixon and Newgarden have combined to win the past four INDYCAR championships, and their teams – Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske – have won the past eight titles.

So, who breaks the streak? It’s best to look to Andretti Autosport or Arrow McLaren SP, where Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda), Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) and Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) are employed.

Rossi was on pace to score five consecutive podiums to end last season until his car spun after leading 61 of the first 69 laps in the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in October. Rossi won the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in 2016 and has seven career wins, but he is massively hungry for his first series championship.

“I’m more motivated than you can believe, and I’m really excited,” he said. “I have a lot of points to prove.”

Herta and O’Ward have shown capable of defining INDYCAR’s future. Each enters the season 21 years old – O’Ward turns 22 on May 6 -- and they battled for the 2018 Indy Lights championship as teammates (O’Ward won).

Last year, Herta finished third in the standings with O’Ward fourth, and they’re desperate to move up. O’Ward has been outstanding in preseason testing but is still seeking his first win in the series. Herta has won three times and scored four poles to O’Ward’s single pole (at Road America last year).

An Experienced Rookie Class

INDYCAR might have to go back a couple of decades to find a newcomer class with as much high-level motorsports experience as this one.

The intrigue starts with Jimmie Johnson, who shares the record for NASCAR Cup Series championships with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt (seven each). Johnson grew up wanting to be an INDYCAR driver, and at 45 he’s finally getting his chance in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 48 Carvana Honda. He has been tutored by four-time series champion Dario Franchitti and has learned plenty from Scott Dixon, but the challenge that awaits him will be unlike anything he has experienced in his career.

“It’s a monster – that’s the best way I can put it,” Johnson said of driving one of INDYCAR’s machines. “There’s so much power, so much downforce, so much grip. It’s wild to drive.”

Driving the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda, Romain Grosjean is a nine-year veteran of Formula One, recognized as the pinnacle of global motorsports, and he finished on the podium 10 times with second-tier teams. Like Johnson, Grosjean, 34, is only scheduled to compete on INDYCAR’s road courses and street circuits this season as he adapts to the series.

“What attracts people to INDYCAR is that it’s a top series, top cars, top drivers, and the driver can actually make a difference,” Grosjean said.

Scott McLaughlin joined Team Penske’s INDYCAR program after driving for Roger Penske and Dick Johnson the past four years in Australian V8 Supercars. McLaughlin, 27, had completed his Down Under checklist, winning 56 races, three consecutive season championships and earning 76 poles and 106 podiums. It was time to move on, and he did so at the end of last year by competing in INDYCAR’s season-ending race in St. Petersburg. He finished 22nd.

“There’s a bit of nerves, absolutely,” said McLaughlin, the driver of the No. 3 PPG Chevrolet, of the full season that awaits. “There’s an unknown there, but I said to my wife last night I feel as prepared as I can be right now. The only thing I lack is experience, and that will come.”

Faces in New Places

Among the 24 entries at Barber Motorsports Park are several INDYCAR veterans who have different opportunities for the upcoming season.

Felix Rosenqvist, Ed Jones and Alex Palou have new teams while Sebastien Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe and Dalton Kellett have increased their number of races with the teams with which they finished the 2020 season.

Rosenqvist, who won a race last year at Road America, will drive the No. 7 Vuse Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. Jones is back in the series after a year away, and he returns to the organization in which he had success in 2017 (he finished third in the Indianapolis 500). Jones will drive the No. 18 Team SealMaster Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan Honda. Palou is now in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing.

Bourdais (No. 14 ROCKiT Chevrolet) and Kellett (No. 4 K-Line Insulators USA Chevrolet) now have full-season roles with AJ Foyt Racing. Bourdais is a four-time INDYCAR champion with 37 career race wins. Kellett drove in eight races last year for the team as a rookie.

Hinchcliffe is set for his second stint with Andretti Autosport, having won three of his six career races there. After competing in six races with Michael Andretti’s organization in 2020, Hinchcliffe will be full-time in the No. 29 Genesys Honda fielded by Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport.

“I think expectations are high for the year (as Andretti) has got a pretty stacked lineup,” Hinchcliffe said. “There was good momentum with the team at the end of last year.”

How To Watch

Nine of the 17 races, including this weekend’s and the two at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, will air live on NBC. The other eight can be found on the NBC Sports Network.

Fans can enjoy live coverage of all practice and qualifying sessions, as well as coverage surrounding the “500,” Indy Lights races, race day warmups and full-event replays of the 2021 season on Peacock Premium, NBC’s direct-to-consumer platform, for $4.99 per month. Signup information can be found at www.peacocktv.com.

At the track, a capacity of 20,000 has been reached for Sunday’s race. General admission tickets remain for action on Friday and Saturday.

Adam Sinclair

Adam has been a race fan since the first time he went through the tunnel under the Daytona International Speedway almost 30 years ago. He has had the privilege of traveling to races all across the state of Florida (as well as one race in Ohio), watching nearly everything with a motor compete for fame and glory, as well as participating in various racing schools to get the feel of what racecar drivers go through every week.  

Adam spent several years covering motorsports for Examiner.com., where he had the opportunity to see the racing world from behind the scenes as well as the grandstands. He invites everyone to follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus, and looks forward to sharing his enthusiasm for all things racing with the readers of SpeedwayDigest.com.

Be sure to tune in for his sports talk program, Thursday Night Thunder, where he discusses the latest in motorsports news with drivers, crew members, and fans. The show takes place (almost) every Thursday at 8:00 pm EST on the Speedway Digest Radio Network. 

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