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Newgarden Loves Going To Barber

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 21 2018

Defending IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden led the field in practice in Alabama on Friday. (File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden has found a comfort zone at his home-away-from home racetrack.

Winner of two of the last three Honda Grand Prix of Alabama races, Newgarden paced practice Friday around Barber Motorsports Park in preparation for this year’s ninth annual edition on Sunday. Newgarden toured the picturesque 2.3-mile/17-turn permanent road-course in 1 minute, 7.4345-seconds/122.786 mph in the latter of two sessions.

Newgarden, who hails from 200 miles away in Nashville, Tenn., calls the facility in Birmingham his “home track.” Newgarden collected the first win of his IndyCar Series career at Barber in 2015 while driving for CFH Racing. He won again in 2017, kick-starting a run to the season championship in his first year with powerhouse Team Penske.

“I love this racetrack. I think it’s one of the best that we get to drive at from sort of a style standpoint,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet. “It’s very technical but it’s got a lot of flow to it. It feels kind of like a rollercoaster to me is the best way to describe the style of it. I have a lot of fun here; I think it’s great.

“We had some issues in the first session. Just kind of been dealing with a couple things that I think we got sorted out for the second session there, but we seem like we’ve got some speed.”

Third-year driver Spencer Pigot was second-fast overall with a lap of 1:07.5372/122.599 mph in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, also set in the afternoon practice. Pigot was a four-time winner at Barber in the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder sanctioned by INDYCAR _ twice in the Pro Mazda Championship (2014) and twice in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires (2015).

“It’s great to be back here at Barber. It’s one of my favorite tracks and I really enjoy it,” Pigot said. “It’s very fast, very flowing and most of the time I’ve had success here. Happy to be here and the day was really good. We started off this morning with a little bit of balance issues, but made some obviously really good changes from P1 to P2 and the car felt really good.”

Will Power, the 2014 series champion, placed third on the combined-sessions time sheet with a lap of 1:07.5987/122.488 mph run in the morning, when he was fastest in the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet.

“I think once again the temperature of the track really makes it tough in these cars,” said Power, referring to the new-for-2018 Dallara universal aero chassis. “It was very nice this morning and was easy to get lap times. And then all of a sudden this afternoon, even on reds (Firestone alternate tires), it’s very difficult to get the car right. We’re going to have to go back and have a good think about it.”

The two practices saw nearly half the 23 drivers go off-course on at least one occasion. Notably difficult was the Turn 5-6 hairpin, where the search for grip was constant. Among those venturing into the grass or gravel in the area were Newgarden in the morning practice and James Hinchcliffe of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, rookie Matheus “Matt” Leist of AJ Foyt Racing, Zach Veach of Andretti Autosport, Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske and Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing in the afternoon.

“Today was very difficult with the wind conditions,” Newgarden said. “If you looked at the wind, it was kind of behind us today going into Turn 5, it was behind us going into Turn 12 and that’s the most difficult wind direction you’re going to drive around here. I think it’s going to flip 180 (degrees) tomorrow.”

Point-leader Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport, the winner from pole last Sunday on the Streets of Long Beach, spun in Turn 15 in the first session. “This morning was definitely a struggle for all of us,” said Rossi, driver of the No. 27 Honda. “I think the No. 27 car was the most outside of the window, but we made a lot of improvements over lunch. We have something to be positive about looking forward to tomorrow. I think we need to take one or two steps in a similar direction, but if we can do that, I think the car will be good enough for the Firestone Fast Six.”

Juncos Racing rookie Rene Binder slid hard into the Turn 16 tire barrier in the second practice, but was released and cleared to drive after being checked at the infield medical center. “Practice went well in the beginning. We did find some improvement, so it went better and better,” said Binder, driver of the No. 32 Chevrolet. “Then we put the red tires on and I tried to push hard and maybe a little too much. I then lost the car, it went straight into the wall. It was a little bit too late with my hands, taking them off the steering wheel, so my left hand hurts a little bit.” 

Final practice session of the weekend starts at 11:50 a.m. (EDT) Saturday and will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app. Pole qualifying, featuring three knockout rounds concluding with the Firestone Fast Six to determine the pole winner, airs live at 4 p.m. (EDT) on CNBC with a same-day replay at 6:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network.

The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is the fourth of 17 races on the 2018 schedule. Rossi enters the weekend with a 22-point lead over Newgarden in the standings. Pre-event coverage of the 90-lap/207-mile race begins at 3 p.m. (EDT) Sunday on NBCSN and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

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Friday’s combined practice results for the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First on the 2.3-mile/17-turn Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., with rank, car number in parenthesis, driver, engine, session, time/speed and total laps completed: 

  1. (1) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:07.4345/122.786, 28
  2. (21) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:07.5372/122.599, 33
  3. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:07.5987/122.488, 30
  4. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, Practice 2, 01:07.7971/122.129, 33
  5. (27) Alexander Rossi, Honda, Practice 2, 01:07.8326/122.065, 32
  6. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, Practice 2, 01:07.8445/122.044, 31
  7. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, Practice 2, 01:07.8829/121.975, 30
  8. (30) Takuma Sato, Honda, Practice 2, 01:08.0628/121.652, 39
  9. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, Practice 2, 01:08.1040/121.579, 23
  10. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, Practice 2, 01:08.1076/121.572, 38
  11. (59) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:08.2882/121.251, 35
  12. (10) Ed Jones, Honda, Practice 1, 01:08.3086/121.215, 37
  13. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Honda, Practice 1, 01:08.3122/121.208, 21
  14. (19) Zachary Claman De Melo-(R), Honda, Practice 2, 01:08.3616/121.121, 29
  15. (20) Jordan King-(R), Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:08.3661/121.113, 42
  16. (26) Zach Veach-(R), Honda, Practice 1, 01:08.4216/121.014, 38
  17. (23) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:08.5216/120.838, 46
  18. (6) Robert Wickens-(R), Honda, Practice 1, 01:08.5495/120.789, 19
  19. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, Practice 2, 01:08.7317/120.468, 32
  20. (14) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:08.9427/120.100, 36
  21. (4) Matheus Leist-(R), Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:09.1182/119.795, 40
  22. (32) Rene Binder-(R), Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:09.3583/119.380, 37
  23. (88) Gabby Chaves, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:09.4198/119.274, 35

Total Laps for Combined Sessions_764

Note  _ All cars use the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series Dallara IR-12 universal aero chassis with Chevrolet or Honda twin-turbocharged V-6 engines and Firestone Firehawk tires.

(R) _ Denotes Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 21 2018
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