by Frank Santoroski    @seveng1967

16C_6251The Verizon IndyCar Series had a rough start to its 2015 season. The first two races were forgettable, to put it kindly.  A nice, if somewhat uneventful, weekend at Long Beach gave a glimmer of hope.

With the Month of May looming, the Series entered Barber Motorsports Park for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, needing to pull off a great event.

Barber delivered in a big way. The storylines coming out of the beautiful circuit in suburban Birmingham are just what the doctor ordered.

On this particular race day, we saw fantastic weather, a great crowd, frenetic racing for position throughout the field, a minimum of caution periods, a superb pass for second place on the final lap, and both manufacturers on the podium as a smaller team toppled the titans and gave us our fourth different winner in as many races.

And, if that wasn’t enough, the most compelling story revolves around a young American driver who took his first career win in the Series.

16C_6753-1At the end of it all, 24 year-old Josef Newgarden was celebrating in victory lane with his team owners, Ed Carpenter, Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman. Unlike the surprise win by James Hinchcliffe at NOLA last month, this victory was no fluke.

Newgarden, who hails from Hendersonville, TN, earned this win with a great qualifying run, a dynamite start jumping from fifth to third before turn one, and hard, focused driving all day long, combined with spot-on service from his pit-crew.

Indeed, when he cleanly made his way around Will Power to steal second place on lap two, I had a good feeling that this was Newgarden’s day.

The youngster beat Helio Castroneves off of the pit lane on the first cycle, setting up a day where he led 46 of the 90 laps on his way to victory.

“This is the way I wanted to do it. I didn’t want to win on some crazy incident, or on luck,”  said an elated Newgarden. “This team deserves it. They gave me an incredible car and let me get out there and rip with the thing and pass people on pure merit. And that’s due to CFH Racing. They were just incredible today. We’re going up against the giants, but I think this team can be a giant one day.”

04CJ8112The smaller teams of Ed Carpenter and Fisher/Hartman had merged in the off-season, pooling their resources, hoping to pose a stronger threat to the established guard of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. Both teams had previously taken wins in the series, but have never contended for a championship

With the powerful Chevrolet engine behind them, this is the first win for the newly-named CFH Racing team. The win elevates Newgarden to fourth in the season standings, putting him in title contention.

In my mind, Newgarden represents the future of the Series. I have been waving this guy’s banner for the past two seasons, and I see a great future for him. Not only is he extremely talented, but he has a great sense of humor and a ton of personality. With the first-win monkey now off of his back, the sky is the limit for this young man.

Newgarden was joined on the podium by Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon. Will Power came home fourth and Ryan Hunter-Reay took the fifth position. We didn’t see the expected Chevrolet beat-down as we had five Honda cars in the top-ten.

Rahal, with his Honda engine and aero-kit, posed the most serious threat to Chevy domination with an incredible drive today. The Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan team has consistently been able to do more with the new configuration than the other Honda teams.

04CJ7743Starting from the eighth spot, Rahal utilized an off-sequence pit strategy to gain track position. Leading through the middle segment of the race, his Honda was every bit as fast as any Chevrolet, and seemingly was quite a bit easier on his tires.

In the closing laps, Rahal looked like a man on a mission. From the fifth spot with ten to go, Rahal passed three cars en route to a runner-up finish.

And just who did he pass? Three former series champions.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Scott Dixon, all fell by the wayside as Rahal motored on past. If there was any doubt as to whether or not the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan team is for real, Graham Rahal’s performance today should erase that.

“The Honda did a great job for me today,” Rahal said. “I passed a lot of guys and I hope everyone enjoyed the race because we were pushing to the last seconds. A few more laps and I think we would have had Newgarden.”

JGS_1140-1The racing all day long was fast, competitive, and mostly clean. The event was not without controversy, however.

Will Power tangled with Takuma Sato exiting the pit lane, and plead ignorance when he was given a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact.

Charlie Kimball and Juan Pablo Montoya mixed it up on the track and had differing opinions as to who was at fault.

James Jakes and Stefano Coletti collided in the closing laps with Coletti drawing the penalty.  All in all, enough drama to keep it interesting, without affecting the outcome of the race, and no major damage to any cars.

_9SG8482Team Penske dominated qualifying and put three of their four cars in the first two rows. In a season where they are expected to crush their competition, they once again failed to pull off a win.

Castroneves was strong from the pole, but faded in the middle segment of the race. His pit-strategy failed as he ran out of fuel in the closing laps and was classified 15th in the final standings.

Defending Series Champion Will Power was able to overcome his penalty and soldier back to a fourth place finish, while Simon Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya took home disappointing finishes of 9th and 14th respectively.

Montoya and Castroneves currently remain at the top of the point standings, but they are closely followed by Dixon and Newgarden. Far from the predicted Team Penske rout, the 2015 title fight is shaping up to be epic, with a dozen races remaining on the calendar.

The Series moves next to the biggest stage in racing for the Month of May.  We will see the oval track aero-kits being tested for the first time next weekend in Indianapolis. This will be followed by the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 9th, and the 99th Indianapolis 500 on May 24th. Stay tuned.


 photos courtesy IndyCar