Penske Looking Strong In Bid For Another 500 Win

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 12 2014

Will Power and his Team Penske team tow their car through Gasoline Alley. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Team Penske’s bid for a record 16th Indianapolis 500 victory began with a sweep of the top three spots on the speed chart Sunday, as practice for the 98th running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” opened at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Twenty-four car/driver combinations logged a total of 731 incident-free laps around the 2.5-mile IMS oval during the six-hour session.

Verizon IndyCar Series point-leader Will Power led the way with a lap in 40.3485-seconds/223.057 mph in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet. Power, winner of the series’ most recent 500-mile race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., last Oct. 19, is chasing his first Indianapolis 500 win.

“Apart from the speed, it’s great to be at the top of the charts,” Power said. “The car felt really good, too, and we got to do quite a few laps (82), try to get the mileage up. You know, just anticipating that it might be wet the next couple of days. It’s only practice, the first day, but always handy to be at the top.”

Juan Pablo Montoya, preparing for his first Indy 500 since winning the event in dominating fashion as a rookie in 2000, posted the second-fastest lap at 40.4490-seconds/222.502 mph in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet.

“I felt really comfortable today,” said Montoya, who drove for Target Chip Ganassi Racing at IMS as a rookie. “I did a lot of running by myself and then I ran behind someone just to start getting used to the feel of that; the understeer and how the car feels in traffic. Right now we just want to get comfortable in the car. The first time I was here it took me about three laps to get comfortable. This time it was a few more. One of the great things about being with Team Penske is our cars are so good.”

Meanwhile, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves posted the third-fastest lap at 40.4726-seconds/223.037 mph in the No. 3 Pennzoil Ultra Platinum Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet. Castroneves was the first driver to hit the track, marking the fifth consecutive year in which a Team Penske car grabbed that honor.

Castroneves, who turned 39 on Saturday, is trying to become the fourth member of the four-time Indianapolis 500 Winner’s Club. “Very happy the weather cooperated with us today,” Castroneves said. “I’m really glad we were able to do so on the first day of Indianapolis 500 practice. That always puts the boss (Roger Penske) in a good mood. I love this month and it feels good to have speed right out of the box. Things are looking good.”

Castroneves turned 83 laps _ most of any driver practicing _ in debuting the iconic, all-yellow Pennzoil car’s livery for this event. The Brazilian scored Team Penske’s 15th and most recent Indy 500 win in 2009.

“It was just weird waking up the day after a race and having to get straight back into the car and on a different style of track,” said Power, referring to Saturday’s running of the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on IMS’ 2.439-mile/14-turn road-course. “But you know, as soon as…I got into it today _ I just felt normal again, back to focusing on the 500 and getting the most out of the car.”

Meanwhile, JR Hildebrand _ runnerup to the late Dan Wheldon in the 2011 race as a rookie _ was fourth-fastest at 222.200 mph in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer/Ed Carpenter Racing Dallara/Chevrolet. Ryan Hunter-Reay, runnerup in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis to Simon Pagenaud, was fifth-fastest at 222.134 mph in the No. 28 DHL Dallara/Honda for Andretti Autosport.

Practice is scheduled Monday from noon to 6 p.m. (ET) and continues throughout the week. The new two-day Indianapolis 500 pole qualifying format will begin on Saturday, May 17, for the race on May 25.

Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe sat-out Indy 500 practice Sunday after suffering a concussion during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. As per INDYCAR rules, Hinchcliffe will have to undergo a medical evaluation before being cleared for practice.

Hinchcliffe was injured by flying debris on Lap 56 of Saturday’s road-course event. He was checked and released Saturday evening from IU Health Methodist Hospital with symptoms of a concussion.

While Hinchcliffe did make an appearance at the IMS for Sunday’s Opening Day, the Canadian kept the visit brief. The three-time IndyCar Series race-winner returned to his Indianapolis home to rest and recuperate. Hinchcliffe could return to IMS for re-evaluation as early as Tuesday, although a date for his next medical visit with Dr. Michael Olinger, INDYCAR medical director, has not been set.

Venezuelan E.J. Viso took the wheel of Hinchcliffe’s No. 27 United Fiber & Data Dallara/Honda for a shakedown run and will continue to practice with the team while Hinchcliffe recovers, and until a definitive decision is made on the latter’s condition. Viso finished sixth on the speed chart in Sunday’s session.

”So far things have been pretty smooth,” said Viso, who started fourth and finished 18th at IMS last May. “I love working with these (Andretti Autosport) guys. Last year I had an amazing year, an amazing experience and I only have positive things to talk about my teammates and my team.

“This opportunity just showed up overnight. We all know what happened to Hinch; at the same time, he’s a great friend of mine, he was my teammate last year. Right now I’m helping him out, putting miles on his car and hoping he comes back soon and jumps back in. It’s all credit to the team; we have a very strong car, and I think with the little things we’re tuning up, they’ll become very important later on in the week when we start trimming the car. As of now we have a good database from last year to start the month off.”

Former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch, who will attempt to compete in the Indy 500 and the Sprint Cup Series race in Concord, N.C., on May 25, completed his first laps in practice traffic on the Speedway.

“Lots of fun,” said Busch, driver of the No. 26 Suretone Dallara/Honda. “It was nice to have a champion, Ryan Hunter-Reay, take me around and then with (Carlos) Munoz and E.J. Viso. It’s just neat to move to the next step, which is to go out there in dirty air and draft with teammates.”

Busch huddled with his Andretti Autosport teammates, including Indy 500 veterans RHR, Munoz and Marco Andretti, after practice. “Yeah, there was three subjects that we talked about in that quick moment, and it was nice to have Marco out of the car to bounce information off of him,” Busch said. “So it’s just there’s a lot of information. There’s a lot of speed, too. At 220 things are moving quick, but it’s a lot of fun.

“Today I can draw a checkmark through the day as a successful rookie day in playing with dirty air. The next day we have to advance that, and the next day we have to advance it again. Thursday we’re going to look at taking downforce off the car to get into qualifying mode. We’ll see how it all pans out.

“I’m glad I skipped out on Fontana last fall. That would have been like drinking through a funnel _ more of a keg stand, I think. Because of all the practice days (at IMS), it’s going to help me get comfortable and digest the information. I think with just a one-day practice at Fontana last fall, it wouldn’t have been a good idea.”

Three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti visited the track Sunday in a new capacity, turning laps in the 2015 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car.

A four-time IndyCar Series champion, Franchitti retired in November after suffering head and back injuries in the second Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston on Oct. 6.

“My seat in the Target car was very comfortable,” said Franchitti, whose No. 10 entry now is driven by reigning Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan. “I spent several years perfecting it, but this Pace Car is a nice car and has a nice seat in it. I’m looking forward to taking it for a few laps here. And I’m looking forward to leading the cars to the green flag on Memorial Day Sunday. I’ll get to do that up to the green flag, then (three-time Indy 500 winner) Johnny Rutherford is going to take over and do his usual thing. I’m making the most of it.”

Franchitti has continued his association with team-owner Chip Ganassi as an adviser to a driver lineup featuring Kanaan and three-time/reigning series champion Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner.

“We’re going to work very hard with all the Ganassi cars and try to get one of those guys into Victory Lane,” Franchitti said. “And it’s a neat way for me to get back to the Speedway.”

Derrick Walker, INDYCAR president of competition, addressed the transition the series made from a road-course race to an oval event in less than 12 hours. “Everybody has been preparing for the quick changeover,” Walker said. “It’s all part of the plan. The design of the track (road-course) and the way the track was built; they were consciously thinking that overnight it would have to be turned back into an oval. When you look at all the road-course lines, most of the lines have been taken off. It’s back to oval just like it always has been. A lot of organization went into the changeover. All the credit goes to the Speedway.”

Nine-time Indy 500 competitor Sarah Fisher was Sunday’s honorary starter on Mother’s Day, waving the green flag to open the first practice. Fisher is co-owner of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, which will field cars for Josef Newgarden and Alex Tagliani this month.

“It was a short day for us,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 67 Hartman Oil/Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Dallara/Honda. “We did a couple of laps, got our install done, so that’s always good to get the car out on the first day and check everything over. We found some gremlins already so we’re hoping to get the bad luck out of the way and be in full-force (Monday) trying to work on our setup.

“We did a lot of work last year on the handling of the car, so I think we have a good base to start from this year. Going between a road course and an oval that quickly is always strange, but it felt really good. Indianapolis is always amazing when you get up to speed the first time. You get that sensation and I got that today.”

Canadian Tagliani, a former Indy 500 pole-sitter, has been assigned the No. 68 SFHR/RW Dallara/Honda.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Dennis Reinbold has formed an affiliation with Chip Ganassi Racing to return to the Indianapolis 500 with rookie Sage Karam.

“We had targeted coming back and running the Speedway all along and had worked on it throughout the year,” said Reinbold, whose team closed shop after last year’s Indy 500 and partnering with Panther Racing. “This program came along rather late with Sage in alliance with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. It’s come together well and we’re really excited about it.

“This will be our 15th year in a row (at IMS); we’ve helped to make sure there were 33 cars in the field all those years. It’s a special place; it’s fun to be back. This is the biggest race in the world and we really want to win it. I’m elated to be here again. I’ll be the strategist on Race Day and call the pit stops. Dario (Franchitti) came over and gave Sage some advice on different driving lines early in the practice session. He (Franchitti) will be working with us a little bit throughout the month.”

At 12:34 p.m., Karam went out to complete Phase 3 of IMS’ Rookie Orientation Program, designed to provide first-year drivers an informal opportunity to get acquainted with the 2.5-mile oval. The three speed phases Sunday, set by INDYCAR based on the weather and track conditions, were 10 laps at 200-205 mph; 15 laps at 205-209 mph and 15 laps at 210 mph-plus. Karam Aced the test and is good to go.

“The setup we have on the car right now will not let me go too much faster than what I’ve shown,” said Karam, driver of the No. 22 Dreyer & Reinbold Kingdom Racing Dallara/Chevrolet. “But right now the main goal is to get comfortable, and I think that’s what we achieved. Later this week we’ll start trimming it out and making her faster to get up into the 220s.”

Reinbold said Karam deserves this chance to compete in the IndyCar Series’ premier event. “He came up through the ranks (Mazda Road to Indy), winning the championship in Indy Lights last year,” Reinbold said. “The ladder system is a good reflection through Sage of what it can do and how it can prepare you for the big cars.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 12 2014
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