IndyCar rolls into NASCAR country

LEEDS, Ala. - The American South is traditionally a stronghold of NASCAR oval racing, but INDYCAR is proving that the land of Dixie can be a hotbed for open-wheel road racing as well.

The IZOD IndyCar Series ran its inaugural race at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Ala., a year ago, and by all accounts the event was a success. Marco Andretti starred, but Helio Castroneves won an interesting, strategy-driven race in front of an appreciative capacity crowd.

Anticipating greater interest, the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama has expanded the attendance cap for 2011, and the racing should be better as well.

Three years into the "unified" era, the field is stronger and deeper than ever, as personified by a pair of drivers making their series debuts this weekend.

Canadian James Hinchcliffe, a winner in Firestone Indy Lights competition, has joined Newman/Haas Racing to compete in all of the North American rounds of the IndyCar Series this year. And defending American Le Mans Series co-champion Simon Pagenaud returns to open-wheel competition more than three years after his last Champ Car-sanctioned race to fill in for the injured Ana Beatriz at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

Hinchcliffe participated in several tests for Newman/Haas during the offseason and was an impressive seventh fastest in the INDYCAR open test at Barber in March. Meanwhile, Frenchman Pagenaud is one of the most highly regarded young road racers in the world. The 26-year-old finished eighth in the 2007 Champ Car standings in his only season of racing Indy cars and he tasted success worldwide in sports cars while driving for Highcroft Racing in America and the works Peugeot team in Europe.

While it is unrealistic to expect either of the newcomers to land on the podium at Barber, both have the potential to run in the top 10 or even crack the top five. And that would be an impressive achievement in a series dominated by five Team Penske and Target/Ganassi Racing entries and road racing aces such as Justin Wilson of Dreyer & Reinbold and a potentially reinvigorated Andretti Autosport team.

Penske's Castroneves broke a winless drought when he claimed victory at Barber last year but he had to overcome an inspired performance by Andretti, who led the most laps but was forced to pit for fuel with eight laps to go.

Ganassi's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti finished second and third, respectively, at Barber last year, but the favorite this weekend still has to be Penske's Will Power, who claimed pole position at Barber last year but fell victim to an overconservative pit strategy and finished fourth.

Although Andretti proved last year that passing isn't impossible at Barber, qualifying well is still absolutely vital on the tight 2.38-mile road course that was initially designed for motorcycle racing.

In that regard, Power is peerless. The last time he failed to start from the front row for an INDYCAR road or street race was the 2010 season opener in Brazil, when he lined up fifth and went on to win. The Australian has earned pole position for eight of the last nine INDYCAR road races.

Power finished second at the 2011 season opener at St. Petersburg after being shouldered out of the lead on a restart by two-time defending series champion Franchitti, who shows no sign of losing speed or motivation as he approaches his 38th birthday.

Franchitti went on to win at St. Pete, as that duo continued their personal duel that went down to the wire for the 2010 IndyCar Series championship.

In that regard, it will be interesting to see how their respective teammates respond. Ganassi's Dixon and Penske's Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were all knocked out of contention at St. Petersburg in a first lap accident that appeared to be caused by Castroneves.

All three find themselves in an early deficit in terms of the championship, and while they need to begin making up points on Franchitti and Power, they can't afford to be too aggressive and put themselves in an even deeper hole.

Others to watch this weekend include Wilson, who will compete with a brace on the wrist he tweaked at St. Pete; Oriol Servia, who leads the Newman/Haas attack; Graham Rahal, whose debut with Chip Ganassi's satellite team got off to a less than stellar start; and the Andretti Autosport crew of Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway and Danica Patrick, whose struggles at road-racing venues over the last couple of years are well-documented.

Then there's KV Racing-Lotus, which placed two cars in the top five at St. Pete with Tony Kanaan and Takuma Sato. The Japanese ex-Formula 1 pilot qualified sixth at Barber last year and could spring a surprise if he keeps his car on the track for the full 90 laps.

Simona De Silvestro (HVM Racing), Alex Tagliani (Sam Schmidt Motorsports) and Raphael Matos (AFS Racing) took advantage of the attrition to notch top-seven finishes at St. Pete and could well repeat that form this weekend at Barber.

And while a Penske or Ganassi victory is the most likely scenario, anything is possible as INDYCAR racing continues to gain momentum in the unified era.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.