Barber always a tough test

Dario Franchitti was the first driver to have his car leave the track on the hook this season. He'll be looking for a better result at Barber Motorsports Park on Sunday. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

LEEDS, Ala. -- Last year's IZOD IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park produced a predictable result achieved in a surprising fashion.

Will Power won the 2012 Honda Grand Prix of Alabama, but he did it from ninth place on the grid. It was an unexpected win for the Australian on a circuit originally designed for motorcycles where it had been generally accepted that passing in 7-foot-wide Indy cars was just about impossible.

Still, a variety of factors -- perfect tire and pit stop strategy by Team Penske, the Chevrolet engine's early 2012 season dominance, general unfamiliarity with the DW12 spec chassis (then in just its second race) and the introduction of "push to pass" power bursts -- allowed Power to lead home Ganassi Racing's Scot Dixon to take a win he hadn't thought possible.

As the IndyCar Series heads to Barber for the fourth time, the question is: Will the trend of improved competition, with passing throughout the field, continue this year? Or will things revert to the form of 2010 and '11, when the tight, technical road course produced a single-file parade?

Complicating matters, the 2.3-mile circuit has been repaved, resulting in blistering times during recent testing that were more than 3 seconds under Power's track record of 1 minute, 10.1356 seconds.

"These cars are unbelievably hooked up around here -- I have never felt so much grip in this car!" Power said after running a 1:07.1329 lap on March 13. "We're flat through the fast chicane at the back of the circuit, and that's bloody fast.

"Getting a good lap time here is really a matter of putting everything together," he added. "It's nice when you can get into a rhythm through those flowing corners and really feel the car. It's also one of the most physical tracks on the schedule, and this car has so much bloody downforce. You pull a lot of G's and they are long, loading corners, so you're hanging there for a while. It's tough on the neck."

Power is aiming for his third consecutive win at Barber, but as usual, he faces serious competition. His Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves won the inaugural Barber race in 2010, and the team is running a third Chevrolet-powered car this weekend for the open-wheel comeback of AJ Allmendinger.

The return of Allmendinger after six years away from Indy cars came out of left field. He's running the Barber race as a warm-up to his first appearance at the Indianapolis 500, but the technical road course is a tough place to come to grips with a new generation of Indy car that has little in common with the machines he drove from 2004-06.

Allmendinger ended two days of testing at Barber with the 15th-fastest time, almost exactly one second off the benchmark set by teammate Power.

"Obviously these Chevy engines are fast when you look at the best times," Allmendinger said. "Now it's my job to start getting in front of the car and learn how to turn that speed into better lap times."

James Hinchcliffe ended the Barber test days with the second-fastest time, just two-tenths of a second off Power's best. Hinchcliffe's mature drive to victory at the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg demonstrated that the Canadian star may be ready to contend for an IndyCar championship in just his third year in the series.

"The car was pretty good here last year on race weekend, so we certainly had a good base to start from," Hinchcliffe said. "The lap times were incredibly quick, so we had to relearn a couple of things because we weren't expecting to go that fast. We rolled off with something pretty strong, and I think we were in the top three for all four sessions. That's not a bad place to be."

Hinchcliffe's win at St. Pete wasn't necessarily a surprise; he was helped by the fact that the three or four main championship favorites all had poor weekends to open their season. Power had an adventurous day on the way to a 16th-place finish, the lowlight coming when JR Hildebrand crashed into Power during a full-course caution.

Defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay dropped out with a sticking throttle, while four-time IndyCar titlist Dario Franchitti was the year's first retirement, crashing on his own while pushing hard on cold tires after a pit stop.

Only second-place finisher Castroneves and Dixon, who salvaged a top-5 finish after a miserable qualifying session that left him 20th on the grid, left St. Pete in a relatively positive frame of mind.

Chevrolet engines took six of the top seven places in the race as almost every Honda-powered entry had a bad weekend. Takuma Sato qualified on the front row but faded to eighth place in the race.

"Obviously, it was a disappointing start to our IndyCar season, but we will learn from this and everyone at Honda Performance Development will work, together with our teams, to get back to the top of the podium," said Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development.