Scott Dixon and Honda power continue to dominate the IndyCar series of late and Friday was no different. There weren't points on the line during the first day of practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, but championship contenders don't see it that way. The undulating road course could be a game-changer.
There are 20 drivers mathematically eligible for the title entering the 85-lap race Aug. 25, and the top two in points — Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon — were fast out of the gate on the 2.385-mile, 12-turn course. Dixon, who has won three of the past four races in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car and is 31 points behind the front-running Castroneves, topped the time chart with a best lap of 1 minute, 18.3145 seconds in the 45-minute afternoon session.
Castroneves was 0.3549 of a second behind in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske car. Reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is third in the standings, was third overall with a lap of 1:18.6814 in the 45-minute morning session.
"Year after year the championship comes down to the last race and we'll just carry on and try to get the most points out of each race," said Dixon, a two-time series champion who won at Sonoma in 2007.
Added Castroneves: "It's wide open; anything can happen."
On Aug. 24, the third practice session begins at 2 p.m. (ET), followed by the three rounds of qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award at 5:30 p.m. (ET). A 30-minute warm-up is scheduled for 1 p.m. (ET) Aug. 25, with the 85-lap race at 4 p.m.
Will Power, who set the track record of 1 minute, 17.2709 seconds in qualifying in 2012, was fourth overall in practice (1:18.7454) in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car. The top 14 on the combined practice time sheet were separated by one second.
NBC Sports Network will broadcast qualifications at 9 p.m. (ET) Aug. 24 and has the race broadcast at 4 p.m. Aug. 25.
SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): "I think personally, the track has been very tough this year. A lot of that may be the tires, I think Firestone always has a great product, but maybe the tires just don't match here that well. It's definitely making it interesting. In the first session you kind of get two or three laps to get it together, and I didn't get it together whatsoever. I think both [Target] cars have been pretty quick. Dario didn't even run on a second set of tires in this session and still got up in the top seven, so he's going to be one to watch, for sure. We seemed to piece our car a little bit together in our second set of tires in that session, our first set of new tires in that session. I don't know, it's really about getting your laps together and making sure you get the most out of the first sort of three laps, and I think as the race goes on it's going to make a really interesting race on these roads."
HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet): "The car seems in pretty good shape. Certainly we just continued developing the setup of the Hitachi car during the day, and it sounds like we were going in the right direction. But again, the track changed so much that you never know, but we just focus on our thing. Chevy and the tire partner seem to be working together, especially on this track because it degrades quite a lot. It's interesting. We're going to see some interesting things in the race. But right now, this morning I was very positive with the way things are going."
CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 83 NovoLog FlexPen Honda): "Overall, it was a pretty good practice day at Sonoma Raceway. It's going to be tough here because you get a lot of tire degradation. New tires were pretty impressive. You take a big step on new tires, but then afterwards it's a lot of work. So, we're trying to find some good grip with the car but it's hard when you don't get that good lap on new tires and the timesheets can be a little deceiving. We've got some time to find it, but fortunately our teammates are quick so we'll be able to learn from the No. 9 and No. 10 car overnight. We'll look at their set-up and hopefully be able to apply the gains they found to the No. 83. Overall, we're feeling good about tomorrow."
ED CARPENTER (No. 20 Fuzzy's Vodka/Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet): ""I was a little frustrated this morning as the track just didn't have much grip. This afternoon was much better and the car felt pretty good. It's so tricky here with the wind and sand on the track surface. We were able to go with our plan with the setups and that plan went better this afternoon. It's been hard to get some good times in with the changing conditions here. The track changes minute by minute, to be honest. It's a struggle at times. We have had a good race pace recently, especially at Mid-Ohio. I think I need to qualify better and work hard on get a good lap. If we could advance in qualifying, I think we could race with a lot of guys. I have been focusing on get out quickly on new tire runs, just like in qualifying. We made good progress today. We were in the mix for most of the practice which is good for qualifying."
TRISTAN VAUTIER (No. 55 Angie's List Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): "It was a good day because we made some improvements in the Angie's List car from the open test where we struggled. We're progressing a little bit each session so now we have to maximize our final practice before qualifying tomorrow morning to make sure we're ready to attack in qualifying."
SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 77 Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports Honda): "We had one less set of sticker tires to use today after what we used in the Open Test on Wednesday, which really affected our showing today. I knew the car was good this morning but it was just a matter of showing it on the time charts, which we did in the afternoon session. I feel confident right now though and I think we have a chance to be up near the front tomorrow. We have a few details to work on tonight and we'll be ready for tomorrow."
LUCAS LUHR (No. 97 RW Motorsports/SFHR Honda): (Are you getting used to racing with the team and on the track): "Well if you look at the position it doesn't seem so, right? For sure it's not so easy. It's quite something different and a new experience for me than driving the LMP1 car normally. These cars have a whole different way of driving style, I guess. But I'm getting to it a little bit, a little bit more and more every lap. It's a shame now in the practice, I was just going out on new tires and then we had the red, so we don't really know what is possible. But I am enjoying it. It's a lot of fun and I hope I can continue improving over the weekend, and looking forward to tomorrow and Sunday."
GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Midas/Big O Tires Honda): ""I'm proud of these guys because we're clearly making improvements and are more competitive than we have been. To put the Big O Tires car sixth is kind of like a victory for us. Do I think we are there, 100 percent? No, but I think I left about four tenths on the table there with a couple of bad moves in Turns 6 and 7 so realistically I think we could have been in the top-three which feels pretty nice. I'm positive about our progress. I think there is still a ways to go but I feel good about it."
JAMES JAKES (No. 16 Acorn Stairlifts Honda): "Today was pretty good actually. Unfortunately we had a good lap going at the end but we lost nearly half-of-a-second on a shift issue. It would have been nice to end the day in the top-10 but we've got that in hand and we will just carry on working. We tried a lot of stuff, we needed to test out a few things and I think we made a lot of progress."
TAKUMA SATO (No. 14 ABC Supply/A.J. Foyt Racing Honda): "After two days of testing, we still had to work really hard, but today was a very positive day for us. We found a good direction. We still need more speed but we're feeling better after practice this afternoon, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow."
DARIO FRANCHITTI (No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): "It was a pretty good day. The Target car was very good on Wednesday which allowed us to experiment today. We found some things that worked and we found some things that didn't. We're pretty clear on what we're going to put on the car for tomorrow, and we saved a set of tires today which was important. We're pretty happy overall with the pace of the Target car."
SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 7 Dragon Racing Chevrolet): "Bit of a tough day for the #7 McAfee team. We tried a couple of things with very limited tires so its difficult to work as well. Overall we didn't make much gain today so tomorrow we will reset our plan. We definitely have a Top-10 car for sure, but I got caught up in traffic on my lap with new tires. This track is super slick and the tire is worse than last year so you get little to work with. It's tough because you feel like you have nothing under you. We will continue to try to do the best we can even though."
SEBASTIAN SAAVEDRA (No. 6 Dragon Racing Chevrolet): "It's a very difficult track in the way that there are a lot of changes in temperature, wind direction and wind speed. Depending on what kind of combination is out there you can have a very good or very bad car. That is something we are trying to figure out. I feel comfortable with the car because we have a consistent car. We struggle a bit at the end with too much grip on the track and too much grease with a hotter tarmac. We need to keep working to find the right balance for the #6 TRUECar and go back to the board and search for more answers. Tomorrow is a very important day for us and we will continue to bring a positive attitude."
WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): "We definitely were improved in the afternoon session and it was good to put up a fast time in the Verizon car. We still have a bit of work to do to get ready for qualifying but I think we're getting closer. It was a good job by the Verizon guys today and hopefully we continue to improve on Saturday."
RYAN BRISCOE (No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing Chevrolet): ""I'm really excited to be back here and have to thank everybody at National Guard Panther Racing for bringing me back for one more run this year. Certainly this has been a track I've done well at the last couple years and I'd like to go out this season on a high. We've been able to get plenty of miles around the track and we've been able to try a lot of different things on the car. But it's tricky here; the wind seems to be a bigger factor here than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. My wrist is probably 90 percent, so I don't think it's slowing me down at all. We know it's going to be a tough weekend, but I really want to do well for the team and the National Guard."
E.J. VISO (No. 5 Team Venezuela PDVSA Citgo Chevrolet): "The practices today went pretty good. I'm happy because we were able to have enough time to do the changes in the car and fix most of the issues we had. We still need to find a little bit more grip, and that's what we are going to be working on this evening for tomorrow's qualifying."
MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 25 RC Cola Chevrolet): "Considering the test we had last week, we didn't finish where we wanted in today's practices. Hopefully tomorrow we can put the RC Cola car towards the top in qualifying."
RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 1 DHL Chevrolet): "It was a pretty good day – we led the first session and ended up third overall. It's a good start, but we definitely have to improve the car. We found some things that didn't work today and found some things that we'll have to apply tomorrow before qualifying. I think qualifying is going to be very important here this weekend, so hopefully we'll get the No. 1 DHL Chevy starting up front on the front row and go from there. It'll be difficult getting the lap time out of the cars; it's a small margin to get it right."
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 27 GoDaddy Chevrolet): "Not the day we wanted, but again, as we've been saying all year, the benefit of having four cars is that usually one of us is near the front, and in this case, it's Ryan (Hunter-Reay). We'll take a good look at what's happening on the No. 1 car and try and keep going. We felt a little bit better than this at the test, a little more competitive. Right now we're just struggling a little bit with a couple corners on the track, so at least we know where we're short. It's not the whole track, only a couple corners; if we can get better in those couple corners, then I think we'll be right there and be able to compete with the top guys in the fast six. We still have to get there, and everybody else is going to improve overnight as well, so we'll just keep our head down and try to get the GoDaddy car up there."
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