Vautier leads Barber practice one

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IndyCar rookie Tristan Vautier led the opening practice session at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on Friday.

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver clocked in at 1:09.0120 around the 2.3-mile road course. Vautier’s session was truncated with an off-course excursion near the end of the session. The 14-minute red flag extended the session an extra five minutes, but only two of the 26 drivers were able to improve their fastest laps.

Honda’s flagship team, Chip Ganassi Racing, got all three of its cars into the top six. Target teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti were second and sixth with Novo Nordisk/Race with Insulin driver Charlie Kimball the meat in that sandwich, in fourth place.

2012 championship protagonists Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power led the Chevrolet contingent, RHR with a late lap of 1:09.1917 to jump to third with Power a surprising fifth, by his usually illustrious pace standards.

Simona de Silvestro, Simon Pagenaud, open-wheel returnee AJ Allmendinger and Helio Castroneves completed the top 10. Allmendinger was within 0.1016 of a second of Power, an impressive time.

St. Petersburg winner James Hinchcliffe clocked in 15th.

All told the field was close, with the top 21 of 26 cars ahead of Power’s track record of 1:09.8529, and the top 22 down to Justin Wilson within 0.8888 of a second.

Only JR Hildebrand, Sebastian Saavedra, Ed Carpenter and Ana Beatriz were outside of one second off Vautier’s pace. Beatriz continues to struggle with the lamentable second Dale Coyne Racing entry, at 3.2247 seconds off the pace.

The second practice session goes off at 4:45 p.m. EST.

IndyCar 2017 driver review: Ed Carpenter

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. The 2017 season behind the wheel was better for Ed Carpenter than either of the last two years, but still wasn’t ideal results-wise in his six oval starts.

Ed Carpenter, No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

  • 2016: 25th Place (5 Starts), Best Finish 18th, Best Start 5th, 0 Top-5, 0 Top-10, 1 Lap Led, 11.2 Avg. Start, 21.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 22nd Place (6 Starts), Best Finish 7th, Best Start 2nd, 0 Top-5, 1 Top-10, 5 Laps Led, 11.3 Avg. Start, 12.3 Avg. Finish

Ed Carpenter’s 2017 season was largely one of frustration, both behind the wheel and as a team owner.

While a respectable turnaround in results occurred – Carpenter finished between seventh and 12th in five of his six oval races after a nightmare season of ending 18th or worse in each of his 2016 starts – this is still not what he sets out to strive for in the races he does. Lost opportunities loomed larger than any official result he or the Ed Carpenter Racing team achieved.

Carpenter and new teammate JR Hildebrand, in for the departed Josef Newgarden, dominated preseason testing in Phoenix but Hildebrand could only muster third in the race, Carpenter a season-best seventh. Then at Indianapolis, Carpenter (second) and Hildebrand (sixth) flew the flag for Chevrolet in qualifying and practice pace, but they fell to 11th and 16th on race day owing to a front-wing change and late-race penalty for passing before a restart.

Both drivers got collected in incidents at Texas. Hildebrand qualified and finished a season-best second in Iowa but that result came only after the ECR crew rebuilt his car from a crash in practice. Then Carpenter had a practice crash in Pocono and despite a rapid rebuild, they missed the clock to qualify by mere minutes and were unable to do so. Carpenter’s spin on a slick Gateway track at the start of the race sent him over Will Power’s nose assembly in one of the scarier looking incidents of the year, although fortunately he was OK.

In a similar refrain as we often write, it’s not that Carpenter’s lost his ability to drive and he remains one of the series’ savviest and smartest people in the paddock. There have been a lot of extenuating circumstances of late, and it almost felt as though this team had “empty nest” components. Since September, Carpenter has had to secure his team’s future with a move away from its Speedway, Ind. shop, line up Spencer Pigot for a full-time drive replacing Hildebrand in the No. 21 car, find a new road/street course driver in the No. 20 car, and manage both driving and owning himself.