Joe Jennings, IndyCar correspondent
Will Power often goes into a race as the favorite but not so today, as he started far back in the ninth place in the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at the immaculately groomed Barber Motorsports Park. Biding his time and adhering to a superb pit strategy, the fleet Australian steadily worked his way through the field, avoided running in traffic and moved into the lead for the first time on the 68th lap of the 90-lap event around the 2.38-mile road course at Barber.
Power led six circuits prior to yielding to Scott Dixon for a lap before taking command for good on the 75th circuit, leading all the way to the checkered flag. But his hold on first place did come up for grabs when a caution flag bunched the field with 17 laps remaining.
I can’t think of a better strategy than the one that was given to me.
Starting on the inside of the double-file restart, Power out-dragged Dixon going into turn 1, and the latter wasn’t able to catch the leader. Power’s margin of victory was 3.3 seconds.
A large, sunbaked crowd seemed thrilled with the excitement on the track as the 26-car field was tightly bunched at times and there was considerable close racing and occasional contact – all at high speeds.
Driving the Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, Power went to victory lane for the second time at Barber and for the 16th time in his IZOD IndyCar Series career. For Team Penske, the powerhouse team has won the opening two races of the 2012 season and has won all three events at Barber.
“It was an absolute team effort,” Power said. “We had a well thought-out strategy and good pit stops. We started on black tires while everyone else started on red ones and managed to pick up a couple of spots. One by one we passed cars and our stops were perfect.
“In the end, the strategy called by Tim Cindric made the difference. Tim was looking for ways to put me out in clean air, and he did so. And the racing was really good because Firestone had a great tire, ones that fell off after about 10 laps, allowing people to pass. I raced hard throughout and never tried to save fuel. As you move forward, you just have to stay focused on get the most out of your car.
“This morning I didn’t think it was possible (to win), but the pit strategy made the difference. I can’t think of a better strategy than the one that was given to me.”
Dixon earned second place for the third time in a row at Barber and fast- qualifier Helio Castroneves survived a late-race assault from Graham Rahal to take third place.
Dixon was the overall race leader with 38 laps in front; Castroneves had 28 and Power 22.
Dixon and his Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda team thought they had a solid shot at a victory, only to be denied again.
“We started third and had a generally good day, but I am kind of disappointed, as I thought we had the car to beat,” Dixon said. “I got caught up with Simona de Silvestro at one point and couldn’t get by her and then something happened on one of our pit stops. But it was a good points’ day but I am disappointed with the result.”
Addressing the late race tussle with Power, Dixon said, “It was a good restart and he got the jump by being on the inside, and there was nothing I could do.”
Traditionally, Dixon starts out slowly each season and with a second place in the season opener combined with this one, he’s off to an improved start, which pleases him. He also indicated his team is making progress with the new car and foresees additional improvement in the offing.
Castroneves said he had used up his tires and had all he could do hold on for third place in the AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet.
“My race started out to be a consistent one, and I didn’t do anything outrageous. And I was trying to save as much fuel as I could,” he said. “But it was very difficult to keep the car in the lead because the tires were going away too fast.” He went on to say that once Dixon took over the lead, it was difficult to stay with him as his rhythm was so good.
Castroneves and Rahal battled intensely in the closing laps with the two only separated by 2/10ths of a second at the finish line. “I was trying everything I could,” he added. “Thank God we were able to hold on and finish third. The way the car was today I have to be very happy with third (place).
Rahal finished fourth and Simon Pagenaud took fifth place.
James Hinchcliffe took sixth followed by Mike Conway, Rubens Barrichello, Sebastian Bourdais and Dario Franchitti.
Two caution periods slowed the race for 10 laps. The first occurred on the opening lap when Alex Tagliani’s car quit and the second took place on lap 67 when Katherine Legge spun into a gravel trap.
The IndyCar Series heads west in two weeks for its annual street race in California – the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.