Power Supplies Speed in St. Pete

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 27 2010

Driver Graham Rahal and his team owner, Sarah Fisher, were 10th fastest in practice on Friday in St. Petersburg. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

IZOD IndyCar Series points-leader Will Power, who won the 2010 season-opener two weeks ago in Sao Paulo, Brazil, topped the lap time chart on another temporary street circuit Friday following opening practices for the sixth annual Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda, toured the 1.8-mile, 14-turn layout in 1 minute, 2.3200-seconds and 103.979 mph. Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon was second at 1:03.0299/102.808 mph. Helio Castroneves of Team Penske holds the qualifying record of 1:01.6839-seconds/105.052 mph set in March 2007.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Justin Wilson, who finished third in last year’s race, was third overall at 1:03.0576 with Andretti Autosport’s Tony Kanaan fourth at 1:03.0615. Andretti teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, runnerup to Power in Brazil and to Ryan Briscoe at St. Pete last year, was fifth at 1:03.0763.

“It was a good day,” said Power, who qualified and finished sixth in this event for Team Penske when it opened the 2009 season. “We’re getting the car better each session. After this run, the car is more like what I like to drive. There’s a long weekend ahead of us, with weather and everything. But I’m feeling good going into (qualifying).”

Saturday’s schedule includes a final one-hour practice in the morning. PEAK Performance Pole Qualifying and the Firestone Fast 6 are scheduled for 1:20 p.m. (ET) today. Sunday’s race will be telecast live in High Definition at 3:30 p.m. (ET) by ABC, and air live on the IMS Radio Network, XM channel 145 and Sirius channel 211. The race also will be carried on www.indycar.com.

Dixon was pleased to be on the provisional front row after a day-long struggle with his No. 9 Target Dallara/Honda. “The car was not great,” said Dixon, who finished a season-worst 16th here last year after on-track contact 80 laps into the 100-lapper. “We had quite a few issues in the morning session, and the second session didn’t start too well. We ended up second, but are still a long ways from Will.”

Wilson led a race-high 52 laps here last year in his debut with Dale Coyne Racing en route to a third-place finish. He is looking for another podium this weekend in his first start with Dreyer & Reinbold. “The track conditions were good. No problems,” said Wilson, driver of the No. 22 Team Z-Line Designs Dallara/Honda. “From the morning to the afternoon, we made some geometry changes and the car had good balance. We just need to work on the brakes, and we’ll be right-on. We have a chance to be a top-three car and, with any luck, win this thing.”

Kanaan, who qualified third and finished fifth here last year, is looking to jump-start an Andretti Autosport organization that failed to win a race in 2009. “I’m pleased, but it’s just Friday,” said Kanaan, driver of the No. 11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda. “We don’t need to get ahead of ourselves yet. But it was a good start. The team, as a whole, is very competitive. We can feed off each other. Now, we just need to get all the data together, make the right changes for the morning and get ready to get into the Firestone Fast Six.”

Hunter-Reay’s second-place finish here in 2009 was the best-ever for Vision Racing, and came just one week after the American signed with Tony George’s team. Now driving for Michael Andretti, Hunter-Reay made the podium last year after starting 14th.

“The car is pretty good, but the competition is so close – really tight here,” said Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 37 Team IZOD Dallara/Honda. “To end the first day in the top five is a good indicator of where we’re at, but we’ve got some work to do. The car is nowhere near where we need it to be for qualifying, by any means. And, I think this will be one of the closer qualifying sessions we’ve ever seen, based on the times we saw (Friday).”

KV Racing Technology teammates E.J. Viso (1:03.0890) and Takuma Sato (1:03.0930) were sixth and seventh, respectively, while Marco Andretti of Andretti Autosport (1:03.2866) was eighth. Two-time St. Pete winner Castroneves (1:03.2884) was ninth and Graham Rahal, making his debut for Sarah Fisher Racing, was 10th (1:03.3220). Defending event champion Briscoe, of Team Penske, stood 13th while Danica Patrick of Andretti Autosport ranked 21st among 24 entries.

Castroneves missed this race in 2009 while awaiting the outcome of a trial on federal tax evasion charges. The Brazilian subsequently was cleared and returned for Round 2 at Long Beach, Calif. “After not racing here in St. Pete last season, it’s good to be back. I really missed this place,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Team Penske Dallara/Honda. “We have a little bit of work to do on the car, but we are definitely going in the right direction. Qualifying is going to be very important, so we need to make sure we have a strong day so we can be in a good position on Sunday to try and get the win.”

Rahal, meanwhile, spent Friday acclimating himself to the No. 67 Dollar General Dallara/Honda fielded by SFR. Fisher, whose team did not compete in Brazil, has hired Rahal to drive in this event and at the Barber Motorsports Park road-course on April 11.

“I think overall it was a pretty good day for myself and Sarah Fisher Racing,” said Rahal, who was 20 when he became the youngest pole-winner in series history at this event last year. “I think we made some ground up that last session and made the car a little bit better. We’ve still got a bit of work to do to make it more secure for me and to find some speed for the rest of the weekend, but I feel like we’re headed in the right general direction.” Rahal made series history here in 2008, when he won his first series start. At 19 years and 93 days, he became IndyCar’s youngest race-winner.

Also on Friday, Martin Plowman was quickest in Firestone Indy Lights practice, turning a top lap of 1:08.1958/95.021 mph. James Hinchcliffe was second at 1:08.2288/94.975, with Stefan Wilson third at 1:08:3467/94.811. Qualifying for the season-opener starts at 3:10 p.m. (ET) Saturday.

Additionally, the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear and the USF2000 Championship will run on the same weekend with the IndyCar and Firestone Indy Lights series for the first time in St. Pete as part of the Indy Racing League’s Road to Indy program. The Star Mazda developmental series opened  its 2010 season last weekend at Sebring (Fla.) International Raceway, with Tristan Vautier the winner.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 27 2010
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