The most prominent challenge for NTT IndyCar Series drivers during this year’s Barber Motorsports Park visit ruled out a battle for the victory during the final few laps.
Confusion with the behavior of Firestone’s red-sidewalled alternate tires during two practice sessions Friday had teams thinking they may utilize the traditionally slower black-sidewalled primary offering during qualifying.
A third practice plus qualifying on Saturday saw the reds function as expected, producing increased grip and thus faster lap times after comfortable setups on black tires were undriveable on reds the previous day.
Though Friday’s unpredictability was even less prevalent on race day, not every car was rolled to the starting grid with an ideal setup for either variant of the Firestone Firehawks.
“We had a lot of tire degradation,” said Scott Dixon after his sixth second-place finish at Barber in 10 years. “We started off where we could push really hard and be really quick and close the gap; even on some of those crossovers in the pits we were able to hone in on both Graham (Rahal) and (Takuma) Sato early on in the race. But the last 10 laps were just miserable.”
Excluding pit stop sequences, Dixon never ran outside the top five during Sunday’s 90 laps at the Birmingham, Alabama circuit, demonstrating his ability to remain at the front while dealing with a challenge trackside fans never would have noticed.
Per INDYCAR’s Section Results document, eventual winner Takuma Sato was faster than Dixon on seven of his final 10 tours of the 2.3-mile permanent road course. An off-track excursion at Turn 8 with four laps left allowed Dixon to complete Lap 86 1.0308 seconds quicker than Sato but an advantage of 0.6573 seconds for Sato on the penultimate lap — perhaps an indication of Dixon’s fading tires — sealed the fourth IndyCar victory for the Japanese pilot.
With Sato stating that he never worried about fuel or tires and Sebastien Bourdais’ going from seventh on the grid to third on the results sheet with two pit stops rather than three, Dixon was surrounded on the podium with strategies that included no tire trouble.
“On that last run, I just tried to hold a steady gap to (Sato), and from there, I have to thank the team,” Dixon continued. “The PNC Bank guys were very strong in the pits (and) we jumped Sebastien (Bourdais) in the pits. He drove a hell of a race and went really far on that first stint. (Bourdais) was good on (tire degradation).”
Dixon and his Chip Ganassi Racing crew will aim to engineer the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda to success during the upcoming Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, which ended last year with the New Zealand native in 11th after starting fourth due to an ill-timed pit stop.