Rinus VeeKay was running away with a flag-to-flag victory until Pato O’Ward intervened with one of his patently bold moves. Callum Ilott was on target for the best finish of his young IndyCar career until a mistake soured the result. And Graham Rahal was on pace to place seventh until Romain Grosjean fell in love with the left side of his car.
The 2022 edition of the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama had its moments of excitement as O’Ward and Arrow McLaren SP broke Team Penske’s early stranglehold on the championship. One thing that didn’t break was Chevy’s noose-like grip on the season as it blanked Honda for the fourth consecutive race.
Both items — AMSP and the Bowtie — served up some great themes as we race towards Indianapolis: How will Penske respond? Does Honda have an answer for Chevy’s perfect start? Can VeeKay and Ed Carpenter Racing repeat on the Indy road course? And after going winless during the opening three months of the season, will Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing find whatever’s been missing to end that unwanted streak?
Lots of questions to be answered in the weeks ahead.
We covered plenty of topics in standalone stories during the weekend, so before we jump into more new topics, here’s some of the other Barber content to digest:
THE POWER OF PRE-EVENT TESTING
One of the more interesting aspects of how each IndyCar team plans its season is found in when and where they choose to use the four private test days. Outside of the one or two annual official open tests that have been put on by the series, the recent restrictions on private testing have made teams choose wisely on how to deploy those precious outings.
Some have chosen to front-load the calendar in an attempt to get off to a strong start, and others elect to save one or two days for later in the year to assist with a surge towards the championship they hope to earn. Chip Ganassi Racing and reigning champion Alex Palou weren’t shy in crediting their decision to test shortly before the Portland race last year — Round 14 of 16 — where the Spaniard snatched pole from title rival Pato O’Ward, went on to win the race, and all but moved the championship out of the Arrow McLaren SP driver’s hands.
Testing strategy also played a role in how the Barber weekend went for the title-contending teams, with Team Penske’s decision to skip a recent group test adding to its challenges as its rivals at Andretti Autosport, Arrow McLaren SP, CGR, Ed Carpenter Racing and even the little Juncos Hollinger Racing team rolling out for the first practice session with more speed to offer due to the knowledge gained at the recent test.
It was far from a coincidence that Andretti, CGR and ECR all featured in qualifying and the race, with three of those four landing on the podium. Penske’s Scott McLaughlin was the one outlier within the team as he and race engineer Ben Bretzman found enough pace to make the Firestone Fast Six while teammate Josef Newgarden had to do a lot of work — eventually using McLaughlin’s chassis setup — to overcome the deficit. He just missed the cut in P7 and Will Power was well lost in P19.
Power rallied to finish P4 in the race, followed by McLaughlin in P6 and Newgarden a distant P14 after his three-stop pit strategy went awry. Altogether, the Penske team’s call to skip Barber came at a price as they weren’t sharp enough to keep their winning streak alive to take four in a row, but the organization did flex its engineering muscles to take cars that were mostly adrift to start the weekend and round them into shape for the race.
And, critically, with Team Penske drivers holding P2-3-4 in the championship standings entering Indy, we can say the choice to save a test day for something farther down the calendar was rather smart. As it would be highly unlikely for the trio to plummet down the drivers’ standings, we are looking at a case of Penske taking note of CGR’s Portland test that boosted Palou’s title bid and choosing to do something similar to benefit its contenders once we get to one of the final races.