After a successful debut last Saturday at virtual Watkins Glen International, the NTT IndyCar Series' online circus heads to Barber Motorsports Park for its second of a planned six events as the world awaits clearance on the current Covid-19 pandemic. The first race, which drew a sizable viewing audience on YouTube, moves to mainstream on NBC Sports Network with a scheduled 2:30 p.m. eastern start time.
While several unknown scenarios were on the minds of most entering action in the Empire State, the focus at the Birmingham, Alabama facility will be centered on who can compete with the IRacing Challenge's current rabbit, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Sage Karam. The Pennsylvania-native controlled the proceedings in the opening stanza, winning the pole position and taking the fight to the remainder of the grid from the word go, leading 43 of the event's 45 laps. Only an honest chase from Chip Ganassi Racing's Felix Rosenqvist and a near-miss of a spinning Kyle Kirkwood kept the final outcome in doubt.
The Swedish second-year wheelman however, is not alone in the pursuit of the No. 24 WIX Filters Chevrolet. Third-place finisher at the Glen Will Power and his Team Penske teammate Scott McLaughlin, who placed fourth last Saturday should also influence the action upfront this weekend, while the event could signal redemption for both Andretti Autosport's Scott Speed and Dale Coyne Racing's Santino Ferrucci. Speed, the former Formula One ace with Scuderia Toro Rosso was among the top-five for most of the first 25 laps last weekend, only to drop from contention after a spin into the barriers exiting The Boot. Ferrucci, the reigning IndyCar Rookie of the Year, failed to post a qualifying time and had to fight through traffic and carnage from start to finish, eventually settling for an eighth-place result.
While each of the 24 runners at Watkins Glen are all expected to return at Barber, the apple cart could also be influenced by five newcomers. Meyer-Shank Racing's Jack Harvey and a recuperating Robert Wickens should be ready to go to battle this weekend, after a lack of equipment kept both pilots out of action for round one. Internet connection trouble also prevented Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe from taking the green flag in New York, but the popular veteran will be ready to pounce likewise at Barber. Two late additions to the lineup are five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon and three-time Indy 500 pole winner Ed Carpenter. Dixon impressed in Thursday testing and could be right upfront with Ganassi teammate Rosenqvist. Carpenter joins ECR teammate Conor Daly in the field, but will need to shake off the rust of not having competed on a road course in seven years.
Although the online debut act in New York was a limited challenge for most, the difficulty is expected to ramp up in Alabama. Despite having several quick sections like Watkins Glen, Barber Motorsports Park also throws several technical sections into play that allow little to zero margin of error. Expect a large chunk of the drama in terms of overtaking to occur at the end of the pit straight and on the run into the Charlotte's Web hairpin. Getting off the final corner flat-out or close to it is key to setting up a chance to gain ground entering turn one. The downhill, banked left-hander provides extra road to bail out those who overcook the entry, but will definitely encourage aggression from the drop of the green flag. As for the hairpin, named for the large spider statue beyond the outer barriers of the complex, a solid exit out of the right turn at number two will allow for a shot to move up in the standings and perhaps offer the last realistic chance to pass over the course of a full lap. The rest of the venue provides the aforementioned technical savvy of the course, where passing may only be possible if the lead driver makes a major mistake.
With passing at a premium in Alabama, earning a high starting position on the grid is essential to creating the path to a good result. However, even the front row starters are not out of the woods in principle. While having a fast car is a plus, being able to handle lapped traffic in a safe and patient manner could ultimately determine the outright winner on Saturday.