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.
As America continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed back the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500-mile race to August 23, the NTT Data IndyCar Series has taken a page from the other major circuits and will take its show into cyberspace. Like NASCAR, Formula One, IMSA, and the World of Outlaws who have each hosted their initial forays into online racing as a Plan B option over the past week, Saturday's IndyCar IRacing Challenge looks to break similar ground for the 50 States' top open-wheel division.
Although Saturday's event (track unknown at the time Speedway Digest went to press) will be absent of three former Indy 500 title holders (Scott Dixon, Takuma Sato, and Ryan Hunter-Reay), the current 25 expected participants feature a good mix of both IndyCar's old guard and a glimpse into the future. All real-life IndyCar teams, except DragonSpeed, are expected to make an appearance on the YouTube-featured broadcast, with an equal car setup mandate likely to allow whoever comes to grips with the IRacing rules of the road the fastest the opportunity to enjoy the most success in the 90-minute main event.
Chief among the expected runners is the presence of reigning series champion Josef Newgarden, who will carry the No. 1 plate into Saturday's online battle at either the Michigan International Speedway oval or the Watkins Glen International road course. Regardless of the outcome of the fan vote that will lock the destination, the Tennessee-native has proven effective on both road courses and ovals respectively assuming the top step of the podium in each scenario. Included within the opposition are three members of the same Team Penske squad, which will feature the debut of two-time Australian Supercars titlist Scott McLaughlin, who enters the IRacing Challenge on the strength of positive outputs in on-track tests at both Sebring, Florida and Texas Motor Speedway. Former Indy 500 winners Will Power and Simon Pagenaud are both relatively new to the IRacing format, but could also challenge Newgarden for top honors.
Andretti Autosport will enter four of its real-world regulars in the special event Saturday, led by 2016 Indy 500 king Alexander Rossi. Third-year IndyCar veteran Zach Veach and impressive sophomore Colton Herta should also factor in the outcome among the top half of the order, but a greater chunk of the attention for most will be centered upon the return of James Hinchcliffe to the Andretti squad for the first time since 2014. The remaining two seats Saturday are filled by intriguing replacements. Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires regular Kyle Kirkwood moves up to drive the No. 28 entry normally wheeled by Ryan Hunter Reay, while Marco Andretti's No. 98 machine will be handled by former Formula One and NASCAR Cup entrant Scott Speed.
Despite the absence of the five-time Astor Cup winner Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing should still make an impact with second-year wheelmen Felix Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson. AJ Foyt Racing meanwhile, will feature a three-car assault, led by Tony Kanaan who begins his "Last Lap" tour in the online race, alongside teammates Sebastien Bourdais and newcomer Dalton Kellett.
However, the biggest dark horse candidates for the win on Saturday may come from the IRacing aces, who could have a leg up on the first time players. Among them is Ed Carpenter Racing's lone representative this weekend in Conor Daly. The Indiana-native is a regular on the online racing scene and even has his own channel on the Twitch website, a showplace for the world's best video game players. Also no stranger to online action is Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Sage Karam, as well as defending IndyCar Rookie of the Year Santino Ferrucci who represents Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan.
Saturday's schedule will open at 4 p.m. eastern time, with a 10-minute open qualifying session that will set the starting order for the main event. Unlike normal IndyCar rounds, which feature a preset lap distance, Saturday's main course will feature a 90-minute clock that will begin at the drop of the green flag, a protocol similar to the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship. The IndyCar IRacing Challenge is the first of six planned events that will through May 2. While there will not be a recognized overall champion, INDYCAR will donate proceeds to a charity of its choice.