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INDYCAR SERIES AT BARBER: Five things to watch

The IndyCar Series returns to the Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama this weekend. (Associated Press file photo)

The IndyCar Series concludes a busy April race schedule with a visit to Barber Motorsports Park outside Birmingham this weekend for the Grand Prix of Alabama.

Just over 35 miles from the NASCAR bastion Talladega Superspeedway, Barber has cultivated an event over the last eight years that has become one of the more well-attended races on the IndyCar schedule.

Here are five things to watch from the Heart of Dixie on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. Sunday, NBCSN):

1. The power of Power

Team Penske has won five of the eight IndyCar races at Barber, with Will Power leading the way. The Australian has won twice and captured four poles on the 2.3-mile road course.

Last year, Power looked to be in position to post win No. 3 in the event, but a punctured tire late in the race forced him to pit, putting him well back of the leaders. He finished 14th.

Fresh off a runner-up finish at Long Beach last week, Power enters the weekend as one of the favorites.

2. Dixon dominance

If Power is the prince of Barber, then Scott Dixon is the king…without a win.

In eight starts at Barber, Dixon has finished on the podium seven times. Five times the New Zealander has placed second, including last year’s runner-up result to race winner Josef Newgarden.

Success has largely eluded Dixon thus far in the 2018 season, at least in terms of his expectations. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is without a podium through three races, with a high finish of fourth at Phoenix. The podium drought is the longest to start a season for Dixon since 2005 when he was driving a Panoz Toyota for Ganassi.

Last week, Dixon appeared to have one of the few cars who could even sniff Alexander Rossi’s pace. But a mistake in which Dixon took service on pit road when the pits were closed earned him a penalty. He finished 11th.

Can Dixon break through at Barber AND in 2018 this weekend?

3. ‘Murica

IndyCar heads to Alabama with a trio of Yankees leading the points standings. Rossi is in first fresh off his third career victory last week at Long Beach, with Josef Newgarden 22 points behind and Graham Rahal 33 points back.

While the season is still just three races in, this stat is worth a bit of a history lesson. The last time three Americans finished in the top three in the points standings in IndyCar, the year was 2001 and Sam Hornish Jr., Buddy Lazier and Scott Sharp were tops in the “Indy Racing Northern Light Series.”

Chances are the American trio is broken up by the likes of a Power, Pagenaud or Dixon at some point this season, but it is an interesting storyline to watch for a series starving for home-grown stars.

4. The grind

The event in Alabama is the third race in consecutive weeks for the IndyCar Series. Only the three-week stretch between May 27 and June 9 is busier on the schedule, with four races set to run in a 13-day span.

While the likes of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport have the infrastructure and personnel to handle such a busy stretch, smaller teams are stretched to the limit with so much on-track action in a short amount of time. Adding to the stress is the fact that this run of races has included a short oval (Phoenix), a street course (Long Beach) and a road course (Barber), three completely different disciplines that drivers must adapt to. Perhaps even more importantly, teams are dealing with unique setups at each venue.

Who can rise to the occasion despite the fatigue?

5. May momentum

Perhaps it doesn’t mean much of anything, but every driver would agree that entering the pivotal month of May on a high is much better than seeking answers for a sub-par performance.

That is what drivers and teams will face this weekend, the final event before a multi-day test at Indianapolis next week, followed by the IndyCar Grand Prix on the IMS road course on May 12 and the 500 on May 27.

The focus and desire this weekend will be on winning at Barber, but there is no doubt that many in the IndyCar paddock are giving a quick glance now and then to a calendar that is rapidly approaching the biggest month of racing for the series.

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