Dixon eyeing step up at Barber

Scott Dixon hopes to finish one position better than his past four years at Barber Motorsports Park. Nick Laham/Getty Images

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Separated by about 30 miles, Barber Motorsports Park and Talladega Superspeedway are both racetracks. But that's just about all they have in common.

Instead of the cold stadium that lines Talladega's 2.66-mile oval, Barber is a 740-acre nature preserve. They call it "the Augusta of motorsports," and it makes you feel as if you're watching a race that happened to break out in a state park.

The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, held at Barber this weekend for the fifth time, is one of the Verizon IndyCar Series' recent success stories. In an era when many events struggle for attendance, the spectator numbers at the HIGPA have grown every year.

George Barber and his team aren't afraid to spend money. That's obvious by just looking around the track, or around the Barber Vintage Motor Museum, which on Friday was named the Largest Motorcycle Museum in the World by the Guinness World Records book.

But part of the Barber Indy car race's success can be attributed to Honda, which signed on as an aggressive and effective title sponsor of the event in 2011.

Honda has a long history participating in motorsports, and it has frequently used its racing programs to help the company develop engineers.

Honda promotes its Indy car engine program to its associates by providing them the opportunity to attend races sponsored by the company. The Honda plant in Lincoln, Ala., located between Barber and Talladega, employs 4,000 people to build Honda and Acura SUVs and trucks and the V-6 engines that power them; many of those workers will be in attendance at Barber for Sunday's 90-lap IndyCar race.

But having a nearby factory isn't the only reason American Honda added Barber to its event sponsorship portfolio. Honda recognized that the Midsouth region has become a hotbed for automobile manufacturing in America.

In addition to Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Kia, BMW and Mercedes-Benz all build vehicles in Alabama or its surrounding states. General Motors is the only domestic manufacturer in the area, building the Chevrolet Equinox in the Spring Hill, Tenn., plant originally created for the Saturn brand.

That puts a lot of car-minded people within a four- or five-hour drive of Barber, and many of them relish the opportunity to enjoy the facility and the racing that takes place there. If Talladega is a haven for muscle cars and pickup trucks, Barber is sports car heaven.

On the weekend, the classic car paddock is filled with dozens of Porsches, Corvettes, Mercedes-Benzes and other exotic cars.

"There's no downside to being associated with Barber Motorsports Park," said American Honda Motorsports Manager T.E. McHale. "It's a beautiful facility."

After some initial concerns about the 2.38-mile road course's viability for Indy cars, the drivers and teams have come to like Barber, too. Frequent opportunities to test there have allowed them to hone their setups, and the racing has often been better than expected.

The race distance opens up the possibility for multiple fuel and tire strategies, which usually has led to an exciting final stint.

The one constant is that defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon has finished second at Barber in each of the four years.

The New Zealander ran second to Helio Castroneves in 2010 after Marco Andretti led the most laps but had to pit for fuel with eight laps to go. Will Power crushed Dixon and everyone else in 2011; Power used an aggressive pit stop strategy to beat Dixon from ninth on the grid in 2012; and last year Dixon moved past Team Penske drivers Power and Castroneves and up to second place too late to challenge winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.

"Because of the four second-places, I guess you could say I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the track," Dixon said. "I hope this year is our year to break through and grab the top step on the podium."

Defending Barber winner Hunter-Reay and the Penske duo of Power and Castroneves must rank as the other favorites. But a lot of attention will be focused on fellow Penske driver Juan Pablo Montoya as he tackles the first race of his IndyCar comeback at a track where he has tested the current Dallara-Chevrolet.

Montoya is coming off a fifth-place finish at Long Beach and is occasionally showing the form that earned him 11 Indy car race wins in 1999 and 2000.

"Top-5 finishes are not the ultimate goal for us, but, as I've said before, this journey back is a process," Montoya said. "As I continue to learn more about the 'red' Firestone tires, how they wear and the grip level they provide, we should start qualifying better, and that will mean a huge difference in how we race and how we finish.

"We were really pleased with the car and speeds at Barber at the test, and our experience should have us in an even better position in the PPG Chevy this weekend."

The IndyCar race at Barber was twinned with a Grand-Am sports car race the past few years, but the track was not included on the 2014 Tudor United SportsCar Championship schedule.

In its place is the Pirelli World Challenge, a series of fan-friendly 50-minute sprint races for a spectrum of production-based cars that is enjoying a boost this year thanks to the arrival of exotic machines such as the Mercedes-Benz SLS and the McLaren MP4-12C.