Race Weekend Central

2024 IndyCar Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix Preview

Outside of Birmingham, Alabama is a motorcycle track that puts on one of the best NTT IndyCar Series races all year. 

That’s right, Barber Motorsports Park and the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix is next on the 2024 schedule.

The fast and flowing layout brought straight out of George Barber’s imagination has recently been the shining example of how great IndyCar’s road course racing can be. The 17-turn, 2.3 mile circuit can come down to the last stint to determine the winner. 

Add the news of the penalties INDYCAR levied against Team Penske on Wednesday (April 24), and the drama will be overflowing like your Amazon shopping cart.

Last Year

What a different season Romain Grosjean could have had if he held onto the lead he took from Scott McLaughlin on lap 64 and got his first IndyCar win. Instead, McLaughlin dug in and retook the top spot with 19 laps to go, relegating the Frenchman to a fifth second-place finish in American open-wheel racing.

It was the peak of his season, as the rest of the year was a bumpy ride made worse when Andretti Global did not sign him for a third year. 

Meanwhile, his rival that day, McLaughlin took his lone victory in 2023, but he did finish the season strong, jumping to third in the championship at the finale. 

Now, both return to this track looking to jumpstart their 2024, just a bit. McLaughlin is in the deepest hole out of anybody on the full-time grid. After the penalty levied by IndyCar this past week and a mechanical failure at Long Beach, he is officially dead last in the points standings. He will need Batman’s grappling hook just to climb to level ground after this race. Prior to the penalties, he’d been outdone by his Bus Bros teammate Josef Newgarden who was leading the Team Penske charge. Now it’s Will Power who is well ahead both of them in the standings.

The New Zealand native and former Australian Supercars champion isn’t going to land in Birmingham ecstatic about his current situation and Barber is a great place for him to return to victory, or at least a podium to get into the championship discussion.

Grosjean shouldn’t be expecting wins, but a top five would be a great result for his Juncos Hollinger Racing team to walk away from one of his best tracks. It’s the only course that he has been to in his three years on the IndyCar circuit where he’s finished in the top 10 each time, with his runner-up last year his highest showing.

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No. 2 going for No. 2 No. 1

When this section was first written, it was about Newgarden going for his second win. Now, he’s on a different mission, to get back into the official win column (legally, of course) to recoup his lost points and shake off a cloud of mistrust from his fellow competitors. With only his points from Long Beach to keep him in the hunt, he is now well behind in his pursuit of his third championship and has to be focused on getting a good result at Barber. Whether he will have to rebuild respect amongst the rest of the field for his actions, that will have to wait to be seen.

Luckily for him he heads to a track that, like Grosjean, has been one of his best. Between his second year in IndyCar in 2013 to 2019, he won at Barber three times – to include his first career win – and added one more podium to go with a worse finish of ninth. However, since returning to Barber after it was skipped due to Covid in 2020, he hasn’t notched one top ten, to include crashing on the first lap in 2021. 

Now, add all this up – dismal performance at Barber since 2021, loss to Scott Dixon at Long Beach, and overcoming an embarrassing penalty – and Penske may have a steely-eyed American intent on victory or bust at round three.

Pit Stop Strategy

McLaughlin won last year because he had a good car, a yellow fell at the right time to bunch the field and he made three pit stops which allowed him to stay on offense all race long. As he said in victory lane, it was the “happy driver strategy.” Grosjean went for two stops, and his fuel save at the end took the win away from him, but still managed a podium. 

Out of the top 10 finishers, seven drove a two-stop race and three went one stop further. Had the yellow not come out for Sting Ray Robb’s stalled car, it’s possible the two-stoppers had the race in the bag. 

If the tire that Firestone brings is harder like the previous races to account for the hybrids expected later in the year, the race strategy won’t be known until the cars data from practice gets collected and interpreted.

Happy Pato

The winless streak for Pato O’Ward is over. Gifted the race at St. Pete because of the Team Penske penalty, he has a little extra peace knowing that he won’t need to push to break a drought that dates back to 2022. Coincidentally enough, it was the misfortune of Newgarden at Iowa Race 2 that put O’Ward in victory lane, physically, for the last time.

Sitting fourth in points, he will want to rebound from Long Beach and the penalty from hitting his teammate Alexander Rossi. In four races in Alabama, he’s won once and finished fourth two other times. A solid top five will add momentum as he enters May and gets to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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The Rest of the Field

Colton Herta and Alex Palou are the only drivers to have top fives in both races this year. Barber has not been a great track for Herta, with a 10th in 2022 his best finish. This weekend could continue his solid start to the season or be another rough date in his four-year relationship with the track. 

Palou is in a different galaxy than Herta in his experiences at Barber. He took his first win there in his inaugural outing with Chip Ganassi Racing and has a second and fifth. Another top five should be expected.

Felix Rosenqvist hasn’t been able to flip his front row starts into a win, but does have a top five to go with a ninth at Long Beach. However, that’s not all bad when considering this – in 2023 Meyer Shank Racing had one top-10 finish across their two car operation. Things are getting back on track for the No. 60 gang after their dismal performance last year. After a third for Rosenqvist at Thermal Club, a fast flowing track like Barber, might be a sign that this weekend will be a good one for him. 

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and its three drivers haven’t jumped out of the gates very strong. That’s not a great sign for a team that is wary of repeating its performance that hit a low-point last year when all their cars went as fast as pond water at Indianapolis.

Graham Rahal and Christian Lundgaard did have good qualifying runs at Long Beach, 12th and seventh, respectively, but the strategy didn’t play out in their favor. Rahal was tracking for a decent finish until his first pit stop sunk his chances. Their third car driven by Pietro Fittipaldi is still a work in progress. Expect Lundgaard to perform well at Barber, he seems to shine on the permanent road courses. Last year he had a stellar year on that type, taking home three top fives and three more top 10s. His worst finish was 11th at Portland.

Power was docked ten points in the Team Penske penalties, but since Newgarden, as the points leader, skydived to 11th, the Aussie is now less points from the top spot than previously. So far this year he seems to be having a rebound from what could be considered the most challenging season of his career, and this is from a guy who has had two crashes in his career that fractured his vertebrae. After wife Liz dealt with health issues throughout 2023, the stress obviously affected his performance on track. Now things appear in a better place, penalty aside, and the Aussie is working to get back to victory lane for the first time since Detroit in 2022. If he wins at Barber, it would be his third at the Alabama track.

Predictions

I’d like to say thank you to Long Beach winner Dixon for his continual insistence on destroying my picks throughout the last year or so. His fuel saving strategy is a thorn in my right index finger while I strive to at least look somewhat competent in making these predictions. On Frontstretch’s weekly The Pit Straight podcast this week, I mentioned adding a disclaimer from now on if Dixon diverts to an alternate strategy. 

Here it is:

*Disclaimer: Predictions are null and void if Scott Dixon executes an alternate fuel saving strategy. 

Now, on to this past weekend. The top three I picked were Palou, Kyle Kirkwood and Newgarden. Ok, that’s not bad. Palou wound up third, Newgarden had a top 2 going until Herta chrome horned his gearbox, and Kirkwood was on the same strategy as Dixon, but have the pace and finished seventh. Final tally, one at least finished on podium. But I still didn’t get any of the positions right. That’s 0-9 on exact picks and 1-9 in hitting the driver in the top-3. Yikes…

This week’s predictions:

Pole – Rosenqvist – why not?

  1. Power – He’s won here twice before and was up front at Long Beach. I think he might be stoking his competitive fire and that bodes well for a win. Team Penske needs this more than he does as well.
  2. Palou – Ran near the top of the field in the first two points races, and won the Thermal Club. Just have this feeling he’s going to be close. Oh, so close.
  3. Newgarden – Mad. That’s how he will be entering this race and he will drive like it. But, his teammate will have a better car this weekend than him. 

The Alabama Children’s Indy Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park will start at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, April 28, with coverage on NBC and Peacock.

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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