Here are some news and notes to watch going into the second round of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season, at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama:
WILL'S WORLD – If he has the handling and balance right on his Verizon Team Penske DW12-Chevrolet, Will Power may be able to achieve a “grand slam” at Barber – as opposed to last year's mere triple sweep of pole, leading every lap and winning his first race of 2011. He only missed the fastest lap to Scott Dixon by some 0.0053 of a second a year ago. He's already got the first pole and fastest race lap of 2012 in the bag, and heads to Barber the outright favorite to repeat his victory of a year ago.
MARCO'S ROAD COURSE BREAKOUT? – Two-thirds of the Andretti Autosport contingent were even closer to nipping on the heels of Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing at St. Petersburg, and the third member, judging on past form, could be in line to do likewise this weekend.
Barber Motorsports Park has been one of Marco Andretti's strongest circuits in the two prior races. He's been in with a shout at victory at both; in 2010 he led 58 laps and finished fifth from fourth on the grid, and last year, he recorded his second-best road course finish of the season with fourth.
In his first 2012 RACER.com blog, Marco described his ability to exit the corners faster than teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay at Barber during testing – and launching quickly here is key with few straights and mastering the rhythm of corners one of the bigger keys to success. With an upgraded Chevrolet engine, and his prior history at the track, count Marco among the outright contenders this weekend.
SECOND TIME AROUND FOR PAGS, HINCH – Simon Pagenaud is classified as a rookie for 2012, although he has raced on a number of the current IndyCar circuits. Barber's among them as Pagenaud jumped at the deep end a year ago, subbing for Ana Beatriz at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in a car he'd never as much sat in before the weekend. All he did was qualify 23rd, ahead of Tony Kanaan for one, and finish eighth – the best finish of 2011 for DRR's now temporarily sidelined No. 24 car.
“I'm really looking forward to go there for the second time, and we'll see,” Pagenaud said. “I know in St. Pete we had a really good racecar. This time it's going to be a different beast. But I think we did good homework over the winter and you know, we're very optimistic about our chances there.”
Meanwhile, the true start of the sophomore season begins for James Hinchcliffe. The Canadian made his IndyCar debut at Barber a year ago and while he starred in qualifying, with eighth on the grid, he had a less than auspicious first race after retiring due to contact with E.J. Viso. On the other hand, that also marks the last time he has retired on a road or street course due to an accident.
SWITCHING UP THE LIVERIES – Barber marks not only the second race of the season, but for some teams, the second different paint scheme whizzing by.
Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves reprise their Clorox and AAA Insurance-adorned liveries this weekend, as last year, which means that two more cars with a shade of blue join the 11 others that have blue somewhere on the DW12.
Ryan Briscoe also has another season of revolving sponsorships ahead of him, as Hitachi will be on his No. 2 Team Penske car this weekend.
CAN KIMBALL START 2 FOR 2? – One of the quieter drivers at St. Pete last week was Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing's Charlie Kimball, who continued his maturation with a clean run, a handful of on-track passes and an eventual ninth place result from 22nd on the grid – also best of the non-Leaders Circle entries. Barber was the site of Kimball's first career top 10 finish a year ago, 10th from a near similar 21st starting position.
He's an outside contender to do well because he posted his strongest outright performances at natural road courses a year ago. At Mid-Ohio, Kimball qualified 10th and finished 11th, while at Motegi, he qualified a career-best seventh and was on course for a potential top-five result before being caught up in the accident when his teammate Dario Franchitti tapped several drivers into a spin. A second straight top-10 would do wonders for the affable young Californian in improving his confidence and showing he remains worthy of a CGR seat.
NBC SPORTS NETWORK'S DEBUT – The name is new but the hope is the coverage stays as good as it was, or improves, for the newly rebranded NBC Sports Network – the network formerly known as Versus.
While everyone within NBCSN and the series are keen to have the Versus network name be banished as much as “IRL” from the vernacular, the non-network word “versus” will still be fully in play for the broadcast network's crew.
First, to see if NBCSN can do a better job of presenting the race as it evolves – not missing passes, not being keyed in on only a handful of drivers, along with the necessary but not overdone storylines, versus ABC's widely panned presentation a week ago.
Secondly, how will pit reporting rookie Townsend Bell (RIGHT) compare versus Lindy Thackston? Twitter largely erupted in outburst when it was announced Thackston was not renewed for a fourth season, but it would be completely unfair to throw Bell under the bus before he even gets a chance.
NBCSN has made, in this writer's eyes, a smart decision in providing Bell this opportunity. He's got the most relevant technical analysis of the current IndyCars, as he drove the previous generation Dallara for parts of six seasons, compared to Jon Beekhuis and Wally Dallenbach Jr.'s sporadic late-1980s, early-1990s CART appearances.
Additionally, Bell isn't a raw TV commentator void of experience, as say, a Brienne Pedigo was during her ESPN/ABC tenure. Bell filled in admirably on occasion for several Formula 1 races, usually the Canadian Grand Prix when it directly conflicted with the 24 Hours of Le Mans. His technical perspective having driven in Indy Lights (first iteration), CART, Formula 3000, IndyCar, and now the ALMS (he won his sports car debut at Sebring in the GTC class) is largely unmatched, and should be great for insight this weekend.
Now of course, Bell's been an analyst, not a pit reporter; several, Beekhuis included, have made the step from the pits to the booth, not the other way around. But I have enough faith Bell can pick up most of the intricacies of how to handle the pits and cover the cars he needs to.
None of that is meant as a slight on Thackston, who I thought was an above-average asset to the coverage. For those missing Thackston, don't worry – she still has an IndyCar presence operating the social media platforms for Ed Carpenter Racing.
One other key debut for NBCSN this weekend is the premiere of its “INDYCAR 36” behind the scenes show, this week featuring Tony Kanaan. Camera crews followed TK throughout the St. Petersburg weekend.The half-hour show airs at 1:30pm ET on Sunday.
The booth crew of Bob Jenkins, Beekhuis and Dallenbach remains intact, with pit reporters Bell, Marty Snider, Kevin Lee and roving reporter Robin Miller on air for qualifying at 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday and the race at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday. No word on whether Miller's popular “Grid run” segment will reappear…
• The IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama airs on NBC Sports Network live Sunday at 2 p.m. Eastern.