If you ask The CW, it’s 100 Days to Indy, but the drivers and teams of the NTT IndyCar Series know that, really, it’s three days to Barber. This Sunday’s (April 30) Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix from Barber Motorsports Park will be the fourth race of the 2023 IndyCar season, and the first of seven races this year held on a permanent road course.
Like Circuit Gilles Villeneuve or Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Barber is one of those few racetracks named after a person – although unlike most of them, it isn’t named in honor of a driver whose life was cut tragically short. Rather, Barber Motorsports Park is named for its founder, billionaire businessman, record-setting motorcycle collector and arachnid statuary enthusiast George Barber, who funded the creation of the undulating ribbon of asphalt just east of Birmingham and is, thankfully, still with us.
For the full history of the “Augusta National of Motorsports,” check out Tom Blackburn’s Inside IndyCar from earlier this week, but the short of it is: big names win at Barber.
Former champions Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud have all got Barber trophies somewhere in their cabinets, and Alex Palou scored his first career IndyCar win at the venue in 2021 en route to his first career championship. The only non-champions to win in Alabama? Helio Castroneves, Takuma Sato and Pato O’Ward. This isn’t a week to bet on the underdogs.
For 90 laps, 26 newly-minted reality television stars (plus Dancing with the Stars winner Castroneves) will have to tackle a challenging 17-turn, 2.38-mile layout that, despite opening in 2003, has a definitively old-school feel about it.
A deceptively quick first corner leads into the spectacularly long banked right-hander of turns 2 and 3. Before they know it, drivers arrive at the best passing opportunity on the track: the downhill braking zone into turn 5. Keep an eye on this not-quite-hairpin during pit cycles, as drivers on cold Firestones are sitting ducks to rivals behind.
The complex at turns 7 and 8 (7, 7a and 8, if you want to be pedantic about it), with its sudden elevation changes and beefy curbs, is lying in wait to trip up any driver who thinks they’re falling into a rhythm, as Callum Illott discovered in 2022, bringing a solid top-10 run to an end.
A word to the wise: get your passing done in the first half of the lap, as the narrow surface and roller-coaster-like elevation changes make overtaking difficult from turn 5 through to the start-finish line. And that’s before even mentioning the fact that, with 27 cars on just under two and a half miles of racetrack, lapped traffic will surely be a factor before the day is through.
Who to watch:
Although it’s probably harder to name a race he’s not one of the favorites for, anyone who wants to win on Sunday is going to have to go through Josef Newgarden. He’s the winningest driver in Barber history, with three victories at the track between 2015 and 2018, but it’s been since 2019 that he’s scored a top five. A crash in ‘21 and uncharacteristic 14th-place result last season have likely done little to dampen his confidence – and you might throw in his teammates Power and Scott McLaughlin for good measure.
Defending Grand Prix of Alabama winner O’Ward had a race to forget last time out in Long Beach, hitting everything but the pace car and losing the championship lead to Marcus Ericsson. The track at which he earned his second career pole and third career win offers a great chance for the young Mexican phenom to put in a great result and recapture the top spot in the title hunt.
Although, the “Sneaky Swede” might just have something to say about that. While Ericsson has just two podiums to his name on permanent road courses, the former Sauber F1 wheelman has steadily improved over the course of his five years in IndyCar, and with two podiums in the opening three races, might just have transformed into the kind of consistent performer his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon can be proud of.
But it’s fellow Honda team Andretti Autosport that will have the most eyeballs come Sunday. After laying down the fastest laps in testing at the Thermal Club and crushing the field in qualifying on the streets of St. Pete and Long Beach, the one-two punch of Kyle Kirkwood and Romain Grosjean have made massive strides in the offseason. Colton Herta is a natural-terrain road course ace, and Grosjean has been in contention for victory every race this year, and is still waiting for that first career win, but I’m predicting he’ll have to wait a week longer.
Yes, you need to be a big name to win at Barber, but as Newgarden and Palou proved, winning at Barber can be what turns a driver into one. If there’s one thing Kirkwood has proven in his open-wheel racing career so far, it’s that once he gets a sniff of clean air, he rarely lets anyone catch up. Long Beach or Barber, I don’t know if that will make much difference.
Frontstretch Race Prediction:
- Kyle Kirkwood
- Pato O’Ward
- Romain Grosjean
The NTT IndyCar Series Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix from Barber Motorsports Park airs this Sunday, April 30 at 3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock.
About the author
Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.
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