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Points leader Josef Newgarden shows plenty of speed in Sonoma practice

by Mike Haag | Posted on Friday, September 15th, 2017

Courtesy of the Verizon IndyCar Series

SONOMA, California – Championship leader Josef Newgarden led both practice sessions on the opening day of GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma activities as the Team Penske driver looks to close in on his first Verizon IndyCar Series title.

Josef Newgarden crests the hill toward Turn 4 during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway — Photo by: Chris Owens

Holding a slim three-point lead entering the 2017 season-finale weekend at Sonoma Raceway, Newgarden’s fast lap in the second 45-minute practice — 1 minute, 16.2485 seconds (112.605 mph) — was under the track record established last year by teammate Simon Pagenaud. Newgarden also paced the morning session with a lap of 1:16.3950 in the No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

GPOPRO GRAND PRIX OF SONOMA: Practice 1 resultsPractice 2 resultsCombined practice results

The 26-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee, led all four Team Penske drivers atop the end-of-day time sheet, with Pagenaud second, Helio Castroneves third and Will Power fourth on the 12-turn, 2.385-mile permanent road course.

Josef Newgarden sets his earpieces along pit lane prior to practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway — Photo by: Joe Skibinski

“I think it was a good session for us – good two sessions, really,” said Newgarden, in his sixth Verizon IndyCar Series season and first with Team Penske. “I feel like the Penske cars are fast. We’ve had obviously a lot of test time, more than others recently. We had (a private team test) last week and then the (series) open test Thursday as well, so it’s plenty of track time hopefully for us to sort out our stuff.

“I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job with that and I think that reflected in the times today from the whole team. We’re all pretty close and have a good handle, I think, on what we want. It’s a matter of putting that together (in qualifying) tomorrow.”

Pagenaud, seeking to become the first repeat series champion since Dario Franchitti in 2011, was second on the time sheet with a lap of 1:16.2871 (112.549 mph) this afternoon in the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet. Since track records may only be set in Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying or races, Pagenaud’s Sonoma lap record of 1:16.2530 (112.599 mph) remains intact at least until Verizon P1 Award qualifying on Saturday.

Simon Pagenaud crests the Turn 3A hill during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway — Photo by: Chris Jones

“I’m very happy with how the car behaved, whether it’s on new tires or older tires, and I think our pace on older tires is best to anyone right now,” said Pagenaud, fourth in the standings, 34 points behind Newgarden. “So I feel very confident that if we start up front (in the race), we can be gone.”

Castroneves was third in practice in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet (1:16.3471, 112.460 mph). Completing his 20th year in Indy cars and still seeking his first championship, the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner is third in the standings, 22 points out of the lead.

Will Power rolls through the Turn 6 Carousel turn during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma — Photo by: Joe Skibinski

Power, the 2014 series champion, was fourth on the combined speed chart with a lap of 1:16.4322 (112.335 mph) set in the first practice session. The driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet is fifth in the standings entering the weekend, 68 points behind Newgarden.

Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon is second in the standings, three points behind Newgarden. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was seventh on the combined speed chart today with a lap of 1:16.5863 (112.109 mph) in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda.

“We’re right there, though, and we’ll have to see how things shake out for qualifying,” Dixon said. “I think we need to bring a little more speed and see what happens. Qualifying tomorrow is one thing, and I think last time we won this (in 2015) we qualified ninth, so anything is possible, really.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay screams through the Turns 9-9A Esses section during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway — Photo by: Joe Skibinski

Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi finished fifth and sixth, respectively, on the combined time sheet. Hunter-Reay’s best lap in the No. 28 DHL Honda (1:16.4829, 112.260 mph) came in the second practice while Rossi’s top effort in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda (1:16.5720, 112.130 mph) came in the first session.

On-track action continues with a 45-minute practice at 2 p.m. ET Saturday that streams live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Verizon P1 Award qualifying to determine the pole winner and the important championship point that accompanies it airs live on NBCSN at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Sunday’s 85-lap race offers double the normal race points, with 100 going to the winner, 80 for second place, 70 for third and decreasing to 16 points for 22nd place. Live coverage on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday. It will mark the 12th consecutive year that the Verizon IndyCar Series championship is determined in the season’s final race.

Indy 500 winner Sato makes Giant new fans

Takuma Sato is a giant among Giants this weekend in the Bay Area. The Andretti Autosport driver and reigning Indianapolis 500 champion met San Francisco Giants players when he attended Tuesday night’s home baseball game with the rival Los Angeles Dodgers and returned the favor by inviting several Giants to Thursday’s Verizon IndyCar Series open test at Sonoma Raceway.

Pitchers Matt Cain, Steve Okert and Josh Osich accepted the offer that included a thrill ride around the 2.385-mile permanent road course in the INDYCAR Experience two-seat Indy car with Mario Andretti behind the wheel. Tom Rathman, retired running back for the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, joined the Giants pitchers for the track visit and two-seater ride.

At the baseball game, Sato compared his Indy 500 champion’s ring with the World Series ring worn by Giants CEO Larry Baer; checked out the life-size statues of Giants greats surrounding the stadium made by sculptor William Behrends, who is creating the sterling silver likeness of Sato that will adorn the Borg-Warner Trophy; and chatted with another Japanese hero, Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda.

“It was awesome and a great experience to go on the field and meet with the Giants players,” said Sato, the first driver from Japan to win the Indianapolis 500. “I’ve been to major league games a few times as a fan, but this was my first time to be invited down to chat with players. It was fun to find out they are actually big fans of cars and racing. It was fun to talk to them.”

The Giants players enjoyed just as much their visit to Sonoma Raceway. Cain was astonished with the grip that the two-seater has on track and Andretti’s ability to make it stick through the turns.

“Going to the first turn you don’t feel like you’re going to stay on the track, but the car just sucks to the ground and you keep on pushing,” Cain said. “Every turn was more and more fun. … That’s a memory for life.”

Drivers help preview Forza 7 Motorsport video game

Conor Daly is a long-time part of the gaming culture. The AJ Foyt Racing driver understands video games as well as anyone in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Daly participated in the Forza Motorsport 7 preview at the Microsoft store in San Francisco on Tuesday night. It was the first time the latest version of the popular racing game was used in public and Daly was thrilled to play it with fans. Along with JR Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal, Daly is joining in the Forza 7 New Era Driver Challenge this weekend at Sonoma Raceway.

Forza Motorsport 7 is a racing video game developed by Turn 10 Studios and published by Microsoft Studies. The game is set to launch on Windows and Xbox One on Oct. 3.

The drivers are taking on fans at the INDYCAR Fan Village throughout the race weekend to demonstrate the game’s capabilities.

“It’s cool that we are some of the first people to play the Forza 7 demo,” Daly said. “Forza always does a really good job. They have made some incredible stuff, some incredible games over the past that I’ve played many, many hours of. It should be a lot of fun.”

Veach gets sponsor for 2018 ride with Andretti Autosport

Group One Thousand One was announced today as the primary sponsor for the Andretti Autosport car to be driven by Zach Veach in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Veach was named as the driver of the No. 26 Honda on Wednesday.

The agreement continues a relationship Veach forged with the U.S.-based insurance holding company at this year’s Indianapolis 500, when he drove for AJ Foyt Racing.

“We’re proud to continue supporting Zach as he rises to the next level in his racing career with the world-class Andretti Autosport team,” said Dan Towriss, CEO, Group One Thousand One. “We believe sports have the power to transform lives and we’re thrilled to continue our partnership with Zach as he pursues his passion.

“On and off the track, Zach personifies the values that we hold true as a company. Like him, we believe in our duty to empower people to chase their dreams and to support the communities in most need of empowerment through education and sports.” 

“What They’re Saying” from Friday practice at GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma 

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet): “The car is really good. I’m very happy with how the car behaved, whether it’s on new tires or older tires, and I think our pace on older tires is best to anyone right now. So, I feel very confident that if we start up front, we can be gone. Adapting is going to be key to the race. I feel confident, yeah. I think last year, you know, obviously qualifying was the turning point on the weekend. We didn’t have the pace up until qualifying, but today and yesterday, I feel like we have the pace at any time. I’ve just got to put the lap together. If I put the lap together tomorrow, I think we’ll be challenging for pole position, and once that’s done, I’ll feel a lot more relaxed about our chance to go for the win.”

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think it was a good session for us, good two sessions really. I feel like the Penske cars are fast. We’ve had obviously a lot of test time, more than others recently. We had last week and then the Thursday, as well. So, it’s plenty of track time hopefully for us to sort out our stuff, and I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job with that, and I think that reflected in the times today from the whole team. We’re all pretty close and have a good handle, I think, on what we want. It’s a matter of putting that together tomorrow. I think we’ve done most of the hard part figuring out what we need, now we just have to try and put it together when it counts.”

HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a strong No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet today. My guys have done a great job giving me a fast car. We definitely found speed but still have some areas we can improve on to get a little more out of the car. Qualifying is really key here at Sonoma, so we’re going to try some things in the practice session tomorrow that we hope to apply to qualifying and see what happens.”

CONOR DALY (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “This is a really challenging track for sure for everybody but for me (especially) because last year we had a weekend cut short by a couple of engine failures, so I’m still learning this place. I have a lot to do driving-wise to improve but we are getting there on the car. It’s been nice to have an extra test day. The balance is improving every session, so we just have to continue to close the gap and I think that’s what we’re doing.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “Today was a challenge. From what we’re seeing with the tires here only being good for one run, you really have to kind of maximize each sticker set and commit to a change that you hope works, because trying to fix it on a second run, usually isn’t very productive. It limits how much running we can do, and I think we’ve been seeing that across the board. Getting on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) for the first time this afternoon was helpful heading into qualifying tomorrow, but that definitely unveiled some issues we still have with the Arrow car. Not where we want to be on the time charts, but we’re working hard at it, and hopefully, we’ll be back stronger tomorrow for qualifying.”

JACK HARVEY (No. 7 AutoNation Honda): “This morning was quite positive. I certainly felt like we had a more competitive car, better balance. This afternoon, I think the track conditions changed significantly, and I don’t think we adapted to them particularly well. I think at least we know what didn’t work so we can now go in the opposite direction and see what does work a little better. The AutoNation Sirius XM crew and I will just keep working, keep trying and use tomorrow morning’s session as a good opportunity to learn something ahead of qualifying.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 8 Gallagher Honda): “We made a nice step forward in the right direction today, but still haven’t gotten into the top 10. I think with where we started yesterday, we’ve been able to close the gap and get pointed in the right direction. I think we’re dissecting the gaps into small bits and seeing where we can make up time and gain more ground. It’s a process. We made a good step forward in final practice today but then we went the wrong direction with the downforce and hurt the balance of the Gallagher car. As a whole, we need to up our game overall, so we’ll see what can be done to close that gap tomorrow here at Sonoma.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 NTT Data Honda): “I think toward the end of the day we had a pretty rough run on the red tires and were only about two or two and a half tenths off the pace. We’re right there though and we’ll have to see how things shake out for qualifying. I think we need to bring a little more speed and see what happens. Qualifying tomorrow is one thing, and I think last time we won this, we qualified ninth, so anything is possible really. There is a lot that can happen especially with strategy in the race. I know this NTT Data car and this Ganassi crew are not going to lay down and we’re going to try and get our fifth championship come Sunday.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 10 NTT Data Honda): “After yesterday’s test and this morning’s practice we saw where we were in regards to the Penske cars and we decided we needed to make some bigger changes with the setup from the first to second practice. This track is just difficult to get a handle on because the track changes so much throughout the day that what you learn in the morning might not translate to the afternoon. We feel like we’re in a good place with the information we have so far. Now we just need to tweak some things in the morning practice and be ready to run in qualifying tomorrow afternoon.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was a good day for the Verizon Chevy. We had good speed in the car. For those wondering, I didn’t have any problems with the knee. I don’t even notice it. In the car, my knee is bent, and I haven’t had any problems with it bent at all. Anyway, I liked the balance of the car and feel good heading into tomorrow. We’ll work toward a good qualifying session. As I’ve said, we can only control our situation and the plan is to win the pole and win the race, then we’ll see where it all falls at the end.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DEMELO (No. 13 Paysafe Honda): “Yesterday I just learned the track and learned the car during the test day and tried to get used to everything as fast as I could. It was more a learning day today than anything today. I started to push the Paysafe Honda a bit more. It was a good morning session. There was probably a bit more time in the car. I struggled a bit in the afternoon with the hotter temperatures and the new (red) tire but I’m still learning and I’m sure we will make good changes for tomorrow. The pit stops were really different than I have done before, but I think it came to me naturally. It was a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to doing it in the race.”

CARLOS MUNOZ (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “This morning wasn’t so bad, but this afternoon we made some changes to the car that didn’t work out. I didn’t extract the most out of the red tires and they are quicker, for sure. We just have to work hard for tomorrow because qualifying is quite important in this race and also to have a consistent car. I think we have made progress compared to yesterday, the car feels a little bit better than yesterday.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 United Rentals / SoldierStrong Honda): “It was a challenging day. We can’t quite seem to get a hold on the rear end of the car here. It’s very neutral and difficult to drive. We have thrown a lot of changes at the problem and have improved but there is a long way to go. We are frustrated but we’re going to keep working hard.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 UNIFIN Honda): “I’m pretty happy with the performance and consistency we had in the morning session, but not so happy in the heat of the day with the wind picking up in the second session. We lost performance and control over the car. We put the Firestone red tires on earlier than most of our opposition, but I don’t think it’s the full story. We still had a pretty big loss of balance and not a big gain of grip on the reds which is not normal and not representative compared to our opposition, so we have to work on it. It’s not something that I’m unused to, but it’s always frustrating when you work for two days on the car and you get to a certain point where you’re happy on the primary tires, and then you put on the options and it’s not so good. We’ll just have to work on it and see if we can find a better compromise.”

ED JONES (No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda): “The track conditions changed a lot since we tested yesterday. There are also cars from other series that have been on track so the different types of rubber are making it more challenging and more unpredictable compared to what we were used to yesterday. We made some good changes and some not so good changes, so we have some work to do overnight, but I think we can get the car in a good place for tomorrow. Our aim is to be in the fight for the Fast 12. The wind was changing directions a lot more yesterday. During our runs it was changing a lot more frequently. Today it wasn’t too bad, so we’ll have to see how it will be during qualifying tomorrow because that could be a big factor.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “Between the two sessions, the balance of the car was completely different. We fixed one area of concern, but now we need to focus on a different area and get more speed out of it. We’ve learned a lot, but we need to be able to piece it other tomorrow for qualifying so hopefully we can do that.

 JR HILDEBRAND (No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “This place is always a challenging spot. You’re always kind of compromising here. I feel pretty good about where we are at. It’s just all very close. Hopefully we can find a couple of good changes overnight and be able to put our laps together. I think we’ve got a pretty good shot at getting through the groups in qualifying tomorrow. Sunday, I think it’s really going to come down to who plans correctly for whatever the conditions are because it’s changing a lot throughout the day. The team is doing a good job at keeping up with it. Hopefully we can get it right tomorrow.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda): “The Dickinson Fleet Services car feels good, and I think it was a productive day. It almost feels like a Saturday because we have already been driving two consecutive days (since the test), but it’s good to have some time to go analyze the data and go catch up on things. We have some work to do for qualifying, but hopefully we will improve.

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda): “It was a decent day two for the UFD team, at Sonoma. We ended up seventh (in Practice 2) so the goal now is going to be to try and make the right changes to get into the Firestone Fast Six. We’re close to it, but the Penskes are in a league of their own right now. We just have to maximize what we have going on and we can have a pretty good result.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I think we had a pretty good Friday to start the race weekend. We went from seventh or eighth yesterday to fifth today and we are the top Honda. We just have to turn that into a top five tomorrow, get into that Firestone Fast Six and go from there. Certainly the Penskes are what looks like our toughest competition right now, so we’re going to have to make another step overnight but so far, so good for the No. 28 DHL Honda.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 83 Tresiba Honda): “I feel like we made some progress this afternoon and were a little more competitive than we had been. We’re still not where we want to be at all. I think as a team we’re looking for some grip, but overall it was nice to make some progress this afternoon. The conditions this afternoon in the second practice were more relevant for qualifying and the race Sunday afternoon. We’ll go back and look at the data from today, especially from the No. 9 car. I believe he was a few tenths up the road. We’ll look at all of the data and see what we can learn. I think we have a concept and a direction for tomorrow morning.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda): “It was a good day and we got through a lot of test items. We missed the balance on the Firestone red (tires) so we know where the lap time is. It’s very close here yet again – showing why this championship is so competitive. We have to make sure everything is right for qualifying because since the competition is so close. Any miscalculation can cost you some spots. I’m happy with where the NAPA Auto Parts car is, and we should have a good day tomorrow.”

  

 

About the Author

Mike Haag has covered motorsports in San Antonio and South Texas for more than 30 years. In addition to working for the San Antonio Express-News for nearly 28 years, Mike also has co-hosted TrackSmack with Dawn Murphy for 15 race seasons. In addition to being a writer, Mike also teaches English at Floresville High School.