Another banner day in ‘Bama for Will Power

Team Penske driver rallies to defend title at Barber Motorsports Park

Will Power couldn’t believe it. And perhaps he wasn’t the only one.

In its first two IZOD IndyCar Series events, the 2.4-mile Barber Motorsports Park had been maligned as a track ill-suited for the open-wheel machines. Too narrow, some said. Not enough passing zones, said others.

On Sunday, that reputation went out the window as fights for position ensued nearly everywhere on the grid. But at the finish, it was all about Power, who started ninth but rallied to defeat Scott Dixon for his second career win at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

“I can’t believe we won from ninth – I thought that was impossible at this place,” said Power, who took over the lead after the final pit stops of the day and gradually pulled away for a 3.37-second victory. “Dixon was so quick, and it was hard to hold him off. I’m very happy. I just can’t believe it.”

Power had come into Barber after failing to be a factor in the season opener at St. Petersburg, where he finished seventh after an early pitting strategy backfired on him. He was seemingly staring at the same fate in Alabama after Saturday qualifying, when his fastest lap of the second round — a lap that would’ve put him in the Firestone Fast Six — was taken away from him by INDYCAR after the red flag came out for an incident involving Ryan Hunter-Reay.

But whether it was because of the new Dallara DW12, a softer batch of Firestone tires or the more lenient blocking rules as compared to last season, it became clear early on that passing opportunities would emerge with more frequency at Barber than in years past.

Power seemed to find his rhythm while on the Firestone “red” option tires, which he raced on for all but the first 21 laps.

“We went in thinking that we have to kind of be a little off strategy to the other guys to be able to pass around here, so we started on black tires — everyone else started on reds,” said Power. “We went to reds when everyone was on blacks. That got us a couple of spots.”

From there, it was solid pit work and strategy, which included a shorter second stint for Power. That particular gamble paid off as Power found himself in second place behind Dixon after the leaders made their green flag stops.

Then, two laps after Power made what would be his last stop of the afternoon on Lap 65, the yellow came out as Katherine Legge apparently lost control of her car and needed help out of the gravel traps at Turn 6. Teammate Helio Castroneves (who would come home in third position to retain an early championship lead) and Graham Rahal pitted shortly after, handing the lead to Power.

The Australian then slowly but surely opened an insurmountable gap on Dixon, who can take solace in the fact that he’s opened 2012 strong with a pair of runner-up finishes.

“For me, my issue has been the start of the season, so we’ve tried to start strong,” he said. “We’ve tried to be consistent, maybe not take as many risks as we should, but also emphasize qualifying in a good position and making the most of it.

“All around as a team, with our package, I don’t think we’re there yet. But I think once we get a few things figured out on the car and the engine package, I think we’re going to be strong.”

His teammate, three-time defending series champion Dario Franchitti, has had a much tougher start to the season. But after qualifying poorly in 18th position for Sunday’s race, Franchitti was able to finish 10th after passing Marco Andretti on the final lap.

Afterwards, the Scotsman said he’d never been so happy to achieve such a result. As for Dixon, he’s not worried about his teammate.

“He hasn’t had the starts that he’s hoped to, but he’ll be strong here real quickly, I’m sure,” he said.

With Power putting a lock on the race late, the main battle on the track in the final laps centered around Castroneves and Rahal. Despite a game effort by the latter, the St. Petersburg winner was able to take the fight for P3.

“I was trying everything I could,” said Castroneves, who had to battle with understeer on his car as the tires began to fall off on grip. “Graham obviously in Turn 2 was much better, so I was trying to keep in one line. Thank God we were able to hold on and finish third.”

But perhaps the most critical drive of the day was pulled off by Sebastien Bourdais. The four-time Champ Car World Series champion battled from 17th starting position to finish ninth in a great effort that gave the power-starved (and testing-starved) Lotus its first top-10 as a series engine manufacturer.

Bourdais had no idea that a top-10 finish would be how his day turned out.

“Every time we get in traffic, we get swallowed up like we don’t exist, so I was a little down before the race,” he said. “Expectations were not super high and it turned out extremely different. I was very happy with my car. Initially, the track was green enough that I could make moves on them, but when the other cars lost their tires, it really helped me put the moves on them.

“Our car held its tires very well and that put us in that position. We passed a lot of people and it was a pretty exciting day.”

Going into Sunday, who would’ve thought that?

Honda Indy GP of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park
IZOD IndyCar Series

1. 12-Will Power, Penske-Chevrolet
2. 9-Scott Dixon, Ganassi-Honda, -3.3709 seconds.
3. 3-Helio Castroneves, Penske-Chevrolet, -19.1150 seconds.
4. 38-Graham Rahal, Ganassi-Honda, -19.3395 seconds.
5. 77-Simon Pagenaud, SHM-Honda, -20.1050 seconds.
6. 27-James Hinchcliffe, Andretti-Chevrolet, -23.3039 seconds.
7. 14-Mike Conway, Foyt-Honda, -24.5552 seconds.
8. 8-Rubens Barrichello, KVRT-Chevrolet, -25.4023 seconds.
9. 7-Sebastien Bourdais, Dragon-Lotus, -27.1815 seconds.
10. 10- Dario Franchitti, Ganassi-Honda, -32.7377 seconds.
11. 26-Marco Andretti, Andretti-Chevrolet, -33.5038 seconds.
12. 28-Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti-Chevrolet, -35.8730 seconds.
13. 22-Oriol Servia, DRR-Lotus, -37.8944 seconds.
14. 2-Ryan Briscoe, Penske-Chevrolet, -41.6742 seconds.
15. 4-JR Hildebrand, Panther-Chevrolet, -44.5059 seconds.
16. 19-James Jakes, Coyne-Honda, -54.5343 seconds.
17. 67-Josef Newgarden, SFHR-Honda, -60.6182 seconds.
18. 8-EJ Viso, KVRT-Chevrolet, one lap down
19. 18-Justin Wilson, Coyne-Honda, one lap down
20. 78-Simona de Silvestro, HVM-Lotus, one lap down
21. 11-Tony Kanaan, KVRT-Chevrolet, one lap down
22. 20-Ed Carpenter, ECR-Chevrolet, two laps down
23. 6-Katherine Legge, Dragon-Lotus, five laps down
24. 15-Takuma Sato, RLL-Honda, Lap 52 — Mechanical
25. 83-Charlie Kimball, Ganassi-Honda, Lap 45 — Mechanical
26. 98-Alex Tagliani, Barracuda-Lotus, Lap 0 — Mechanical

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 102.081 mph; Time of race: Two hours, one minute, 40.1127 seconds; Margin of victory: 3.3709 seconds; Cautions: Two for 10 laps; Lead changes: Nine.

Lap Leaders
Castroneves, 1-24; Hinchcliffe 25; Rahal 26; Dixon 27-47; Castroneves 48-49; Dixon 50-65; Castroneves 66-67; Power 68-73; Dixon 74; Power 75-90.

Point Standings
Castroneves – 86
Dixon – 84
Power – 77
Hinchcliffe – 60
Pagenaud – 58
Hunter-Reay – 53
Rahal – 50
Briscoe – 46
Conway – 38
Barrichello – 37