IndyCar POWER RAKINGS: Alabama
Throughout the season, POPULAR OPEN WHEEL will rank the drivers and teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR OPEN WHEEL Facebook page.
Josef Newgarden provided a solid answer in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama to the gauntlet laid down at Long Beach by Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.
Braving the bad weather and tight confines of Barber Motorsports Park, the Tennessee-native outlasted a frustrated competition. In this case, a group interrupted by contact and unforced errors. While Team Penske is starting to show the consistency that was constant in each of their three recent Verizon IndyCar Series titles won since 2014, this is not the primary focus at this point of the campaign.
The bigger concern is what this will mean next month at the 202nd running of the Indianapolis 500. Keep in mind, this was an event last year, where minus a late-race surge by Helio Castroneves, the Captain’s men were largely a non-factor. Only one of their five pilots (Will Power), made the Firestone Fast Nine in qualifying, and the three-time Borg-Warner Trophy winner from Brazil was the lone frontrunner over the course of 200 laps.
While Andretti Autosport’s current torchbearer Alexander Rossi drops to No. 2 in the new Power Rankings poll before May, the organization’s ability to put the puzzle together to reach the winner’s circle is tough to ignore. While the Chevrolet marquee squad has controlled the final points table, one of Honda’s power-house clubs has been the “King of the Hill” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, leaving empty-handed just one time in the past four editions.
1) Josef Newgarden, Team Penske (+1 since Long Beach): The “Tennessee Tornado” stood up to the challenge posed by Alexander Rossi at Long Beach. If the current No.1 plate holder reverts to his 2016 form at the Brickyard, when he qualified second and placed third on race day, his almost non-existent pose 12 months ago will be long forgotten. Of course, the biggest factor, the battle in horsepower between Chevrolet and Honda is out of his control.
2) Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport (-1): It is effortless to drop the hammer on someone after coming home 11th. However, the difficult track conditions in Alabama merits a second chance for the former Formula One test driver, who has proven an ever-improving fit to the confines of the Indianapolis 500. A clever strategy call netted a shocking triumph in 2016, and a front row start and early lap leading a year ago, should be followed or exceeded in some form next month. If you go by recent information, the Californian’s stay as the best of the rest may not last very long.
3) Robert Wickens, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Unchanged): While the Canadian was aided by the iffy conditions handed out this past weekend, a fourth-place effort was a solid bounce back from a Long Beach failure that was not his doing. The IndyCar Grand Prix should provide an excellent opportunity to secure his maiden trip to the winner’s circle, in an event where impatience has proven a fatal flaw. It seems like every year the start is marred by a first-turn accident that alters the complexion of the story. The calm and strategic nature shown by the former DTM star in the opening four acts could shine the brightest in the fifth chapter.
4) Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing (+1): The Frenchman held his own in trying circumstances to post a top-five, an effort to lessen the sting of a Long Beach showing that the former Champ Car titlist feels was negatively altered by IndyCar officials. As with Wickens, the road course round in Indiana’s capital city may allow a greater shot to win. Of course, one also wonders what might have happened in the big show last year, if Bourdais’ massive shunt had not occurred in qualifying.
5) James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (+1): The victory earned at a rain-shortened race in New Orleans a few seasons ago was clearly not a fluke. The Mayor overcame a lot to take the final spot on the podium in Alabama, putting the momentum train back on the tracks as the month of May approaches. The pole earned in 2016 shows what the Toronto-native can achieve at the Indy 500; the question now is whether Schmidt Peterson Motorsports can rejoin the conversation as a P1 challenger car-wise.
6) Will Power, Team Penske (-2): After showing good stuff at Long Beach, the Australian’s bad luck returned at Alabama with an unsightly 21st-place output. The hit-or-miss scenarios have been tough to shake since his title run in 2014, yet the Indianapolis Motor Speedway does provide some light at the end of the tunnel. He’s a former winner of the IndyCar Grand Prix (2015) and has shown muscle in time trials for the 500-mile classic. Not time to give up on the No. 12 Chevrolet pilot, but the clock is ticking.
7) Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing (+1): Sixth is not peaches and cream for the Iceman, but the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was an event where the New Zealander was not his own worst enemy. Based on his recent pace during the month of May since 2015, it would seem that a second placement of his visage on the Borg-Warner Trophy is long overdue. Maybe 2018 will be the one.
8) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport (+2): Buoyed by a strong runner-up outing in Birmingham, RHR heads to his power track next month. It is very hard to find a more consistent win threat at the Indy 500 since 2013. The veteran could easily have two or three victories in the big dance, as opposed to just one.
9) Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (-2): Another top-ten at Barber Motorsports Park, yet the No. 15 Honda chauffeur’s performance was trumped by both Dixon and Hunter-Reay in a couple of ways. One, Rahal on paper seemed to be the bigger threat for a result in round four. And two, that factor shifts to the other camps next month.
10) Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport (New Entry): POPULAR OPEN WHEEL initially scoffed at the idea of putting the third-generation driver on the chart after Alabama, but then we took a second peek at his resume. Four finishes of 12th or better, including a tenth at Barber, merits at least a fair shot of breaking through a frustrating slump that has loomed over the Pennsylvanian since 2016. Plus, the power possessed by his team at Indy is also in his corner.
Dropped Out: Tony Kanaan (Was No. 9 after Long Beach)
1) Andretti Autosport (Unchanged): Not as flashy as the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach hardware takes, but Ryan Hunter-Reay appears potent, as does Alexander Rossi, and even yes, one Marco Andretti. With a little more experience, Zach Veach will be up there in the mix, and of course, don’t forget about Carlos Munoz when he joins the party next month at Indy.
2) Team Penske (Unchanged): Yes Josef Newgarden won at Alabama for the second year in succession, but where was the rest of the squad? Simon Pagenaud’s difficult start to 2018 was altered slightly with a ninth-place effort, while misfortune once again found Will Power. The jury says not enough to move to the top of the list.
3) Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Unchanged): Honestly, if Newgarden had not won at Barber, there would have been a strong case to jump SPM ahead of them. Robert Wickens continues to drive like a seasoned veteran, and James Hinchcliffe also recovered well from the adversity dealt with at Long Beach. “Sam the Man” has had a good deal of positive karma this decade at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, maybe some more comes his way next month.
4) Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (+1): We dropped Graham Rahal down a couple of rungs on the drivers’ list, so based on top-tens from both the No. 15 machine and Takuma Sato, the team climbs up the ladder here. The pressure will be on the Japanese veteran next month as he attempts to prove that last year’s Indy 500 glory was not solely gained via a dominant car.
5) Chip Ganassi Racing (-1): Scott Dixon kept his nose clean, but after a career-run last time out at Long Beach, Ed Jones’ early conflict with Charlie Kimball began a forgettable showing for the Dubai-resident at Barber. Still, the hopes have to be running high heading to Indy where the organization has lifted the Verizon P1 Award plaque in two of the past three showings.
6) Dale Coyne Racing (Unchanged): Same song, second verse. Bourdais still rolling along after a top-five effort in Alabama. The sister car is still mired at the tail of the grid, with Zachary Claman de Melo swinging and missing last weekend. Could the return of Conor Daly be the solution to give the Windy City runners two realistic shots at snatching a big finish at Indy?
7) A.J. Foyt Racing (Unchanged): A 12th-place is progress at best for freshman pilot Matheus Leist, but an 18th puts a damper on the strong start to 2018 that was enjoyed by Tony Kanaan. Certainly a team that is flying under the radar as May approaches, however.
8) Ed Carpenter Racing (Unchanged): Hopefully ECR was saving all its fireworks for the Indianapolis 500, the sight of the organization’s biggest challenges in recent years on the IndyCar Series circuit. The team boss’ previous two pole positions at IMS can’t be ignored, and maybe the presence of Danica Patrick could offer a second machine among the top three rows of the starting lineup.
9) Harding Racing (+1): Gabby Chaves and company does not have the top-ten finish that Carlin captured earlier this campaign, but unlike the Florida-based operation, they have been running at the finish of every IndyCar Series race so far in 2018. Hence, they jump their new kid rivals this week.
10) Carlin Racing (-1): Whatever positive strides that were made at Long Beach, were quickly given back in Alabama. Early baths for both Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton does not offer much confidence looking down the road, at least in the short term.
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