The first round of the season at St. Petersburg didn’t go well for many of the expected championship contenders. Will Power’s race was derailed when he was hit by J.R. Hildebrand. Dario Franchitti was the first car out after hitting the wall on cold tires. And Ryan Hunter-Reay had a mechanical problem that relegated him to an 18th place finish.
This week at the Barber Motorsports Park, two out of the three were able to turn their seasons around. Franchitti finished 25th for the second consecutive race but Power was able to finish fifth. However, it was the defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay who picked up his first win of the season.
RHR started from the pole and was able to use his position to get out front early. Alongside, Will Power had a terrible start and quickly fell back the order and stacked up the outside of the grid which pushed he and contender Scott Dixon back in the field.
Meanwhile, the back of the field got stacked up in the Turn 9 chicane which resulted in Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia losing parts. The worst damage was saved for St. Pete winner James Hinchcliffe who lost his left-rear tire and drive in his car. His car was towed to a marshal’s post where he was supposed to wait until the next caution to get towed back to the pits. Unfortunately for the Mayor of Hinchtown, that was the only caution of the day.
Back up front, pit strategy dictated the order. Both Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves were on three-stop strategies. Will Power was on a two-stop strategy. This caused the three to swap the lead during pit stop cycles. At one point, even Charlie Kimball found himself leading the race before finishing 4th on the day.
His superior speed was able to get RHR by Castroneves while fuel conservation forced Power to drop back. Will needed another caution at some point to really make his strategy work but everyone was able to keep it clean.
Hunter-Reay’s biggest challenge was a late charge by Scott Dixon. As RHR’s tires started to go off, Dixon was able to reel in the champ but didn’t have enough pace to catch up to the eventual race winner.
The win was not only Hunter-Reay’s first at Barber but his first top-ten at the track. Scott Dixon finished 2nd for the fourth time in the IndyCar Series’ four races at Barber. Helio Castroneves continued his series of strong runs at Barber with a third.
Charlie Kimball score his second career top-five with a 4th. Will Power’s two-stop strategy allowed him to round out the top five. Simon Pagenaud had a quiet day but still managed a 6th. Marco Andretti had another strong road course run showing that getting away from the family and to a proper driving instructor was a good decision as he finished 7th. Justin Wilson had an aggressive drive to 8th. Josef Newgarden and Tristian Vautier both scored their first career top-tens in 9th and 10th, respectively.
A.J. Allmendinger made his return to open-wheel racing this weekend. Despite violating NASCAR’s drug testing policies while driving their #22 car, Penske Racing welcomed Allmendinger back to the fold, this time for the IndyCar team.
The Dinger progressed well through the weekend. He qualified 10th and was able to move up through the field with some good moves on the start and the race’s only restart. However, a stall on his final pit stop cost him all the positions he had made up from the start. His debut could have had a very good result. Instead, he only managed to finish 19th.
The schedules for a few drivers got a little busier this weekend. Coincidentally, two drivers are tied to Penske Racing. In order to help reacquaint him with open-wheel racing, Allmendinger is getting the Long Beach Grand Prix added to his schedule. The idea is to keep getting The Dinger comfortable before his run in the Indy 500. Penske boss Tim Cindric also hinted that a race after Indy isn’t out of the question.
Allmendinger was a pretty good hand on the ovals in Champ Car. He has three top fives and four top tens in five starts on ovals. His NASCAR experience at Indy might actually be a detriment because IndyCar and NASCAR run two different lines and two different driving styles on the oval.
Meanwhile, former Penske driver Ryan Briscoe will return home for the Indy 500. Briscoe has signed a one-race deal with Chip Ganassi Racing for the 500. I had to look this up but Briscoe raced in Ganassi’s third car for the 2005 season. He finished 19th that year after missing one race due to a practice crash and two others due to injury.
He has three top tens at Indy and last year’s pole to his name. Four of his eight IndyCar wins came on ovals but his best finish at the Speedway is 5th.
Over at A.J. Foyt Racing, Conor Daly will run the Indy 500 in the team’s #41 car. Daly impressed in pre-season testing in Sebring but is following the path to F1 in Europe. He ran the first round of GP2 in Malaysia where he finished 7th in the sprint race. He isn’t completely inexperienced on ovals. He swept the two oval races during the 2010 Star Mazda Series season.
The next round of the Izod IndyCar Series is in two week’s time. It’s not the biggest race of the season but it’s the biggest road/street course race in the season. It’s the legendary Grand Prix of Long Beach run on the challenging street circuit which has been an international open-wheel fixture since Formula 5000 first made a stop there in 1975. It was also a popular stop for the Formula One World Championship for eight years.
As you’d expect for a track with right turns, Will Power will be strong here. The Andretti cars have picked up a pair of wins at Long Beach since IndyCar and Champ Car have merged. Also, keep an eye out for Sebastian Bourdais. The Frenchman won three consecutive races on the streets of Long Beach in Champ Car and we all know he can wheel a race car.