Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing might have won Sunday’s season-opening NTT INDYCAR SERIES race at Barber Motorsports Park, but two former season champions, including the reigning champion, put themselves in terrific position to again contend for the title.
Will Power of Team Penske and defending series champion Scott Dixon – Palou’s teammate – finished second and third, respectively, in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst, and the reward was made more significant by the troubles of other projected title contenders.
Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport finished ninth while former series champions Josef Newgarden of Team Penske and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay were knocked out of the race in a first-lap crash.
Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, another recent former champion, finished 12th.
For Power, the first step to a season was finally one in the right direction. In the past five years, his average finish in the opener was 13.6, and he had finished 14th, 21st and 11th in the previous three races at this track. As drivers in this competitive series know, slow starts often lead to frustrating finishes, and Power knows all about that lately.
“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,” said Power, who scored his best Barber finish since winning in 2012. “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.”
Power won his only series championship in 2014. He said he couldn’t match the speed of Palou, particularly in the first segment when the Spaniard jumped to a big lead. Power said his slight mistake in the late going kept him from finishing any closer than four-tenths of a second.
Dixon’s pursuit of a record-tying seventh series championship didn’t start with much fanfare, but Barber Motorsports Park continued to be a good place for him. Sunday’s third-place finish was his third in 11 events, and he has finished second eight times.
Dixon still hasn’t won at Barber, but he can accept consistent success nonetheless, especially when on this day his car struggled to receive telemetry after a local power outage.
“The PNC car was really good, (but) it was definitely a track-position race,” he said. “I think we had more pace than (Power), but we just couldn’t (catch him). You’ve got Push-to-Pass; they’ve got push to defend, so it becomes super tricky.”
Per usual, Dixon saw the big picture. “A great points day for all of us,” he said.
Tough Start to Competitive Season
Newgarden took responsibility for the first-lap crash that put himself and others in a tough championship hole.
The two-time series champion lost control coming up the hill leading to Turn 5. He spun and not in the direction that was best for the 16 cars trailing him.
“I got loose in the wake (of the leaders),” Newgarden said. “I thought I had the car (under control), and then I touched the grass and I think once I (did that) it pitched me sideways.”
First to strike Newgarden’s Chevrolet was fellow title hopeful Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport, but there was contact aplenty in the ensuing seconds. Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Andretti Autosport Honda pounded the front end of Newgarden’s car, and Arrow McLaren SP’s Felix Rosenqvist ran over the right front corner of Max Chilton’s Carlin Chevrolet, with Rosenqvist’s Honda lifting high in the air.
Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing spun, and James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport bounced of the left side of Jimmie Johnson’s Chip Ganassi Racing machine. Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing deftly knifed his way through the debris. Johnson did well in that regard, too.
“I was waiting for Newgarden to spin somewhere and he spun in the same place,” Herta said. “I had to go some direction. I had Conor (Daly) on my right, so I couldn’t go right.
“Man, it sucks.”
Said Newgarden: “I feel bad for anyone who got involved in that. My mess created a bigger mess.”
Officially, only Newgarden and Hunter-Reay were knocked out of the race. Crews of the other cars were repaired and finished many laps down.
For Herta, it was the end to a bad weekend. The third-place finish in last year’s championship standings slid through Turn 2 in a Saturday practice, his car going through the gravel trap and hitting the barrier. He finished 22nd in the race.
“I’m ready to get out of here and start thinking about St. Pete,” he said of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which begins with practice Friday afternoon. The 100-lap race is Sunday at noon ET on NBC.
As will be the case all season, St. Petersburg practices and qualifying will be available on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. Signup is available at www.peacocktv.com and $4.99 per month.
Johnson Takes Debut in Stride, Accomplishes Goals
Entering his first INDYCAR race, Jimmie Johnson said he didn’t want to start last. He accomplished that goal by landing the 21st starting position.
Leading into Sunday’s race, Johnson said that a “victory” to him would be finishing all 90 laps. He was kidding, but he really wasn’t.
Johnson finished 19th in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, three laps down. Technically, he didn’t complete all 90 laps, but effectively, what Johnson was saying was, he wanted to complete the race. In that regard, it was mission accomplished for the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.
But it wasn’t easy. Johnson’s navigation skills were immediately put to the test on Lap 1 when he had to weave his way through the five-car accident reminiscent of many NASCAR days on the superspeedway tracks of Daytona and Talladega, which feature “the big one.” Johnson made it through the wreckage with just the relatively minor contact on his left side.
“I’m very happy to have finished,” Johnson said. “There were two pretty scary moments in the race; one at the start going into Turn 5 when there was chaos. I bounced off a few cars, but nothing really happened to mine, evidently. Very fortunate there.”
The second moment came on Lap 9. Johnson got a taste of how challenging the NTT INDYCAR SERIES can be when he got caught in the traffic of Rinus VeeKay. Johnson raced into the uphill Turn 13 and lost control. He spun without hitting anything, coming to a complete stop. That’s when Johnson lost his first lap as he struggled to refire his car.
Johnson noted that two of the biggest challenges of the day were with the car itself. First was the physicality, for which he trained all offseason. Johnson said the training worked and that he felt like he could have raced for a few more laps even if his left hand was beginning to blister.
Second was the in-car capabilities that aren’t available to a driver in a stock car. Johnson was using his tools but tuning his car in the wrong direction. His crew saw what was happening and informed him of the mistake, and he said once he corrected the issue he was back on pace.
“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.”
Johnson received two massive thumbs-up from his boss, Chip Ganassi, who was celebrating in Victory Circle with Palou, Johnson’s teammate.
“What a great leader he is,” Ganassi said. “What a great guy. It really makes me mad to know what I was up against in NASCAR all those years. Now I understand why he won seven championships. The guy is the hardest worker I know, and he never stops. He’s having a great time. He’s got a hill to climb, but he’s gonna do it.”
Other Sunday Notes:
- Graham Rahal led the way in the final warmup Sunday morning, posting a best lap time of 1:06.7319. Rahal, who was on primary “black” Firestone tires, led a couple of former Formula One drivers. Series rookie Romain Grosjean was second in his first INDYCAR warmup with a best lap time of 1:06.8616, while Sebastien Bourdais was third with a time of 1:06.8642. Rahal finished the race in seventh.
- Colton Herta nearly started Sunday how he spent Saturday – with an accident. He was penalized for an unsafe release early in the final warmup after he exited his pit box as defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon entered his box. The two almost collided as Graham Rahal was close behind Dixon on pit lane, as well.
- Jimmie Johnson has been getting sage advice this weekend from those like Dixon and four-time Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Rick Mears. But another person he has been getting help from is three-time Indy 500 winner and four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Dario Franchitti, who has been on the pit box and communicating over Johnson’s radio all weekend. Immediately when Johnson exited the car after the race, he debriefed with Franchitti.
- Racing For Children’s Patients gave the virtual command “Drivers, start your engines!” to get the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst underway. Racing For Children’s is a foundation created to raise funds and awareness for the Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s of Alabama.
- Barber Motorsports Park was repaved late in 2019, and this was the first time the NTT INDYCAR SERIES raced on the fresh pavement. It was fast, and it was slick. Right from the start, pole sitter Pato O’Ward and second-place starter Alexander Rossi were sliding all over the track in an exciting show of their athleticism, and many more drivers kicked up dirt throughout the day.
- Four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Sebastien Bourdais can smell victory circle with his new No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet AJ Foyt Racing team, and that has made the Frenchman quite aggressive on track. Shortly after O’Ward pitted on Lap 42, Bourdais made a daring pass on the Mexican driver, bumped wheels and pushed O’Ward nearly off track. Bourdais finished fifth, backing up his fourth-place finish in last year’s season-ending race at St. Petersburg with the Foyt team.
- The day’s best quote came from Pato O’Ward: After his Lap 42 pit stop mired him back in traffic, and after he received a hip check in Turn 5 from Bourdais, O’Ward came over the radio and told his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP team, “I feel like a turtle.”
- Marcus Ericsson was on the prowl today, running in the top five for most of the race. He pegged his aggression meter on Lap 76 as O’Ward exited pit lane on Lap 76 just in front of Ericsson’s No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Ericsson made a daring move toward the outside entering Turn 5, then performed a crossover and got below O’Ward and completed the pass. Ericsson finished eighth.
- While Alex Palou became the 14th driver to win in INDYCAR for Chip Ganassi, he is just the third driver to win for Ganassi in their INDYCAR SERIES debut. He joins an elite list of drivers: Michael Andretti and Dan Wheldon.
- Palou brought Chip Ganassi Racing its 114th INDYCAR SERIES win and his first at Barber Motorsports Park
- Palou continued one of the weirder stats of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES: the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama has always been won from a top 10 starting position but never from an even-numbered position. Palou, who started third, became the third NTT INDYCAR SERIES athlete to win the race from the third starting position. First place has five wins, and the fifth, seventh and ninth place starting spots each have one win a piece.
- The Road to Indy ladder system competed again today at Barber Motorsports Park. David Malukas scored his first career Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series win after crashing out of Saturday’s race on Lap 1. Hunter McElrea won the Indy Pro 2000 race.