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Team Penske Looking Strong In Elkhart Lake

| , RacinToday.com Saturday, June 24 2017

Josef Newgarden dashes through the woods at Road America on Friday. He and Team Penske mates ruled the road during practice. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

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Team Penske flexed its collective muscle during Friday’s practice for the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America, locking down the top four positions on the combined time sheet after a pair of 45-minute sessions.

Josef Newgarden led the Penske parade in Elkhart Lake, Wis., setting fast lap in the No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet at 1-minute, 42.8229-seconds/140.537 mph around the 4.014-mile/14-turn permanent road-course. Track activity will continue Saturday with Verizon P1 Award pole qualifying. The race, the 10th of 17 on this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, is set for Sunday afternoon.

“I was happy with today,” said Newgarden, the winner earlier this season on the road-course at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. “I thought it got a little loose in the afternoon with the temperature coming up slightly. We were working on that, but pretty smooth run on the (Firestone alternate) reds, which was nice to see. We’ll try to carry it into tomorrow and see what we’ve got.”

Directly behind Newgarden on the time sheet were teammates Will Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (1:42.8720); Simon Pagenaud in No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, (1:43.1370) and Helio Castroneves in the No. 3 REV Group Team Penske Chevrolet, (1:43.2227).

“Definitely we just keep learning off each other,” said Power, the defending race winner. “That’s going to be the key this weekend. I’m pretty sure we’ll all be at the front in qualifying. It’s about doing a good job and trying to get the most out of your car, and understand where your teammate’s faster.”

The first non-Penske and non-Chevy on the combined speed chart was driven by Alexander Rossi, whose lap of 1:43.3285 in No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda topped the morning practice and held up for fifth quick on the day.

Rossi, however, had issues on two occasions in the afternoon practice. First, the Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian driver slid off-course in Turn 14 and contacted the tire barrier to bring out a red-flag stoppage. Later in the session, Rossi skidded through the grass in Turns 12 and 13 before regaining control and pulling into the pits.

“We set our quickest lap on the second run on reds (Firestone alternate tires),” Rossi said.” I think the fact that we were able to do that shows there’s inherent speed in the car. It was a bit of a disjointed session with the off in the beginning, so we were kind of playing catch-up after that but I think the car is good. We need to make a couple of little tweaks overnight to get me more comfortable, but I feel good about the pace the car had today.”

Esteban Gutierrez, who made his series debut three weeks ago with Dale Coyne Racing at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, was named Thursday to drive the team’s No. 18 Honda for the remainder of the season. Gutierrez, of Mexico, was 17th in practice Friday with a lap of 1:44.0868. He is subbing for the recuperating Sebastian Bourdais, who suffered back and hip injuries in a crash during qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 on May 20.

“I enjoyed a lot competing in INDYCAR (at Detroit) and, therefore, we tried our best to continue for the rest of the season,” said Gutierrez, who spent the 2016 FIA Formula One World Championship schedule with American-owned Haas F1 Team. “Here we are. So I’m very, very happy.

“It was a bit of a mixed day. Obviously driving at Road America is always a pleasure, so I really enjoyed it. We had a small issue in the first session that cut our session a bit short. In Practice 2, it was slightly better, but I’m still not 100 percent comfortable with the car on braking, so this is an area that we need to focus on and fix for tomorrow.”

Touring car driver Robert Wickens was a quick-fix substitute for Mikhail Aleshin in the No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, after visa issues prevented Aleshin from returning to the United States from his native Russia in time for Friday’s on-track activity. Wickens, who tested a Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Indy car in February as part of a ride swap with friend James Hinchcliffe, ran 20th in each of the sessions with a best lap of 1:44.7085.

“I’m really happy with today,” Wickens said. “Obviously, you always want to make as much progress as possible, and you never know if you’ve done enough or if I should achieve more. The biggest thing for me is the car is still in one piece and I haven’t made a terminal error yet. The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has done a fantastic job getting me up to speed and making me comfortable.”

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is hopeful Aleshin will arrive in time to be in the car Saturday.

“It’s been a strange day because I’m not really sure if I’m doing the next session, since I don’t know when Mikhail is arriving or if he’s arriving,” Wickens said. “So I’m going to work overnight as if I’m driving tomorrow morning, and if not, then hopefully I can help out the team somehow.”

A third practice is scheduled for noon (EDT) Saturday that will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Three rounds of knockout qualifying begin at 4 p.m. and conclude with the Firestone Fast Six to decide pole position. NBC Sports Network will air a same-day telecast of qualifying starting at 5 p.m. (EDT).

Sunday’s race is set for 55 laps around the iconic circuit _ five laps longer than a year ago. Live coverage will begin at 12:30 p.m. (EDT) on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

| , RacinToday.com Saturday, June 24 2017
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