One day in, no clear cut front-runner at Sonoma

We are off and running for the final IndyCar weekend at Sonoma Raceway. Unfortunately though, one of the championship contenders had a delayed start to his Friday. Josef Newgarden was dealing with a case of food poisoning Thursday night into Friday, and his No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet had some sympathy pains in the morning session. The defending champion did not run any laps in first practice due to a fueling issue with the car. He said it was just coincidence that he was unable to run, and his lack of practice in the morning session had nothing to do with his short-lived illness. While he ran fastest in the afternoon session, he seemed frustrated and uneasy about the race tomorrow, or at the least, not as confident as we might expect,

“We were happy with our cars when we tested here last Thursday, so we felt optimistic coming into the weekend and now we’re just trying to go through the motions and make the right steps all the way up through the end of Sunday. That’s kind of what you do on a race weekend. You try and make the right decisions every day.”

The morning was highlighted by a few spins and slides, with Rossi drifting slightly through what I believe was Turn 4 early in the session. A lap or two later he spun thru Turns 3 and 3a, from what I could gather on the track feed, but was able to recover from that without making an contact or creating any damage. His maneuverability skills, even when the car seems to be getting the best of him, is really something to see, and commendable in my opinion. I’ve legitimately enjoyed watching Rossi wheel ‘babygirl’ around tracks this year. He ran P8 in the morning and had a bit more stable late day session, running 6th quick. I’m looking forward to what he puts together tomorrow, to entertain us in his run for a championship. His qualifying position today will be crucial.

“I think we made a step forward this afternoon from this morning. We definitely have some work to do overnight – we need to put our heads together. But this isn’t the first time we’ve had a bad Friday, so I have a lot of confidence in the 27 NAPA team that come tomorrow afternoon we’ll be alright.”

There was one red flag in the session, caused by James Hinchcliffe when he made a 360-degree spin, covering an impressive amount of ground in doing so, and then made right side contact with the Turn 2 tire barrier. The AMR Safety Team got him back out to the course and were able to refire the No. 5 Arrow SPM Honda. He returned to the pits under his own power and we resumed with practice.

The session stayed clear untli the checkered, but as cars made their way around the track on the way to pitlane, we saw Hinch get loose again, this time in Turn 7. That one was an easy save though – he stayed on course and continued. His afternoon was a bit better, putting together a lap good enough for P5. Hinch commented on the progress of the day, in his ever self-deprecating and humorous way,

“Today certainly ended better than it started. In P1 we had a problem with the car that we didn’t find until after the fact and led to a difficult session that had us spinning around. I think I was pointing backward as much as I was forward in Practice 1, so it’s nice to rebound and be in the top five this afternoon. Tomorrow is a different day, so we’ve got to put our heads down, try and close the gap a little bit and see what we can do.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay ran the fastest in the morning with a 1:17.574 lap. Championship points leader Scott Dixon was just a tad slower, clocking a 1:17.826. Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, and Marco Andretti rounded out the Top 5.

The afternoon saw just one red flag as well, this time for the No. 10 NTT DATA Ganassi Honda of Ed Jones stopped on course in Turn 7. He was back up and running as quickly as the field could park in their boxes.

Scott Dixon was runner-up in practice tables again in the afternoon, with Indy Lights 2018 champion and IndyCar rookie Patricio O’Ward running P3. A very impressive run for the young man, whose first experience behind the wheel of an Indy car was, yep, yesterday. Keep an eye on this one next season. His talent should definitely be noted, as much as the stars in his eyes. You can tell that he is absolutely living his dream, and to see that is inspiring. Life is short you guys so don’t force things, do it with the passion of a young rookie race car driver, or do not do it at all. But I digress. I’ll just let O’Ward tell you why rising to a challenge is worth the payoff,

“I think it’s pretty cool, but it’s really hard at the same time. It’s very physical. I feel like just the first time you jump in the car and you feel the power, you feel the aero, you feel the tire that is a lot different to the Cooper than we’re used to, it’s pretty difficult to just find the limits.

I think we’re still getting up to speed and just finding the limits of the tire, of what the car likes, of what we like in the car and just different setups because it’s a totally different car to tune for, but in general it’s just another race car, and we’re just going to have to get used to it just like we did to the lights car, but it’s definitely, definitely, a lot faster.”

Kids, man. They keep us young, don’t they?

The weekend’s final practice session will go green at 11:00 a.m. PT / 2:00 p.m. ET today on livestream, followed by qualifying at 3:00 p.m. PT / 6:00 p.m. ET. You can watch qualifying on livestream as well, and then NBCSN will broadcast it on time-delay at 5:00 p.m. PT / 8:00 p.m. ET.

This qualifying session could tell us a lot about the outcome of the race tomorrow, not to mention the season. Here’s to a safe and entertaining remainder of the weekend.

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Photo credit: Shawn Gritzmacher / IndyCar