Commentary

Keep eye on Team Penske at Barber

Updated: March 31, 2012, 1:32 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

LEEDS, Ala. -- With one race in the books using the new DW12 chassis, there's a bit more of a form book in place for the Izod IndyCar Series.

Barber Motorsports Park, site of this weekend's Honda Grand Prix of Alabama, offers up a different kind of road racing than the St. Petersburg street course on which the IndyCar season opener was contested. But there is enough similarity to predict that Team Penske holds the early advantage, and possibly so does Chevrolet.

Chevrolet-powered cars qualified one through five last weekend at St. Petersburg, led by Penske's Will Power. And Chevys took six of the top eight finishing positions, again led by a Penske driver -- Helio Castroneves. Castroneves won the pole for Sunday's race.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesHelio Castroneves piloted his Penske Racing DW12 chassis -- named after the late Dan Wheldon -- to an easy win in the IndyCar opener Sunday at St. Pete.

Scott Dixon kept the Penskes and the Chevys honest in his Honda-powered Target Chip Ganassi Racing DW12. But Dixon's teammate, four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti, said that performance flattered the package.

"We've got a lot of work to do, and I think it shows what a great job Scott did to finish second," said Franchitti, who finished 13th in the season opener, losing four spots when he ran out of fuel on the final lap. "We've had a lot of back-and-forth the last couple of days, between myself and the team and Honda, figuring out what we need to improve."

Barber might not be the most likely venue for Franchitti to jump-start his campaign for a fifth championship. He has finished third on the undulating road course near Birmingham the past two years, but he qualified only seventh both years and has suffered a couple of off-course excursions.

Meanwhile, Power won the pole at Barber in 2010 and '11 and cruised to a relatively unchallenged victory last year. He finished fourth in 2010 after losing out to an alternate pit-stop strategy.

"Our car tested well there in the offseason and we should be able to capitalize on having a great car," Power stated.

The Penske team dominated the St. Pete weekend, with Power and Briscoe sweeping the front row. Castroneves worked the two-stop strategy to perfection, Briscoe was first of the three-stoppers in fifth place, and Power recovered from a pair of bad restarts to claim seventh place.

"Our goal is to build on the good results that Team Penske and Chevy achieved at St. Pete," remarked Briscoe. "This is a good track for our team, and we hope to keep 2012 going in the right direction toward a championship."

Andretti Autosport put together the second-best weekend at St. Pete, with Ryan Hunter-Reay and new team member James Hinchcliffe qualifying and finishing third and fourth, respectively. Marco Andretti couldn't string together a result, but he has run strongly at Barber in the past with top-5 finishes the past two years.

"I'm ready to get going at a place where we've been really competitive in the past," Andretti said. "We led a lot of laps there, so it gives me and the team confidence that we'll be good there this weekend."

[+] EnlargeWill Power
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesWill Power, winner of the 2011 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, has enjoyed considerable success at Barber Motorsports Park.

The two breakout performers at St. Petersburg were Hinchcliffe and Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports. Pagenaud was the top Honda runner in practice and qualifying, but the 26-year-old Frenchman started 16th after being docked a 10-place grid penalty for an unauthorized engine change.

Pagenaud ran the full Champ Car sanctioned Indy car series in 2007 and was quite impressive. He has raced mostly sports cars since then, barring three IndyCar Series starts last year in a substitute role for three different teams.

A favorite of Honda after helping with the development of Acura's LMP prototypes, Pagenaud has high hopes for what is still being billed as his rookie season in Indy cars.

"I knew my engineers have been really strong, and they have been asking themselves the right questions," Pagenaud said. "I knew we would be in the mix, but I was kind of surprised that right out of the box we were up there already. It was a pleasing surprise, and I think we can keep going that direction because we have more in store. It's going to be a matter of executing every race and make it happen. It's the first time in my career I've had such a great opportunity to showcase what I can do, but I'm also a lot more ready than I used to be in the past."

The 2.3-mile Barber road course is one of the finest facilities that the IndyCar Series visits. However, the track was designed for motorcycles so it is difficult to pass in wide Indy cars.

Power demonstrated at St. Pete that he has the potential to dominate from the front. But committing early to a three-stop strategy mired him in the pack, and he complained bitterly about being unable to pass what he perceived as slower cars.

INDYCAR originally hoped to have a push-to-pass feature available in 2012 with up to a 100-horsepower boost. But that development has been pushed back in an effort to ensure reliability and parity in the engine manufacturer battle between Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus.

The Lotus program is approximately eight weeks behind, and several Lotus competitors suffered electrical problems at St. Petersburg. However, Sebastien Bourdais of Dragon Racing demonstrated that the Lotus engine is capable of running in the top 10, and the Frenchman came close to leading the Lotus marque's first lap of Indy car competition since the late 1960s.

After the new DW12 turned practice laps about 1.3 seconds a lap faster than a year ago, Power's pole lap at St. Petersburg was a disappointing 0.4 seconds quicker than last year's time.

The additional knowledge the teams gained about how the DW12 reacts in qualifying on Firestone's red-sidewall alternate tires should result in bigger time gains at Barber. The tires Firestone is supplying this weekend feature softer compounds and slightly modified construction compared to last year's tires.

Sunday's 90-lap contest will be broadcast by NBC Sports Network.