James Hinchcliffe tops 1st IndyCar practice at St. Pete

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James Hinchcliffe, the defending champion of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, was fastest in this morning’s Verizon IndyCar Series practice session on the 1.8-mile St. Pete street circuit – the first of two practice runs for the series today.

“There’s a little more attention with being a past winner, but the goal remains the same this time around,” Hinchcliffe told assembled media at St. Pete.

Hinchcliffe logged a time of 62.9326 seconds at 102.967 mph in the No. 27 United Fiber & Data/Andretti Autosport Honda. He led a Honda sweep of the Top 3 times in Practice 1, with Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson (62.9385 seconds/102.958 mph) and A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato (63.0603 seconds/102.759 mph) in P2 and P3, respectively.

Team Penske’s Will Power led the Chevrolet contingent with the fourth-fastest time in the session (63.1932 seconds/102.543 mph), followed by St. Pete resident and KV Racing Technology driver Sebastien Bourdais in fifth (63.1948 seconds/102.540 mph).

Ryan Briscoe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan completed the Top 10 in the session.

Other notables included Helio Castroneves in 11th, defending series champion Scott Dixon in 13th, and Penske newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya in 14th. Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Munoz was the fastest of the four rookies in 15th.

The top 18 drivers in the session, from leader Hinchcliffe all the way back to Ganassi driver Charlie Kimball, were separated by less than one second.

A second IndyCar practice will take place this afternoon at 2 p.m. ET. Live timing/scoring and audio will be available on IndyCar.com.

Penske: No room for Patrick in Indy 500 lineup. Ganassi? OK

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) Roger Penske has no room in his Indianapolis 500 lineup for Danica Patrick.

“The Captain” has a hunch where Patrick’s Indy comeback will take her in May – with Chip Ganassi.

“I sent him a note and said, `Congratulations. Danica better be driving your car at Indy because unfortunately she’s not driving for us,”‘ Penske said, laughing.

The 35-year-old Patrick said this week she will race only in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 next year and then she will walk away from racing. Patrick is the only woman to have led laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Patrick ran the Indy 500 from 2005 through 2011. Her highest finish was third in 2009, and she was the first woman to lead laps in the race when she paced the field for 19 trips around the Brickyard as a rookie.

Penske has a full field for Indy with Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and 2017 series champion Josef Newgarden racing as fulltime entries and three-time winner Helio Castroneves returns on a one-shot deal to try and win a fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing is the likely ride at Indy. Ganassi has room to field additional cars – he’s scaling down from four full-time cars to two next year – and would give Patrick a car capable of winning. Ganassi said Friday he has met with Patrick and called her “Danica Double” a great idea.

Penske said Patrick and Ganassi, who has Ed Jones and IndyCar great Scott Dixon in his lineup, would be a perfect pair.

“I think that’s a great seat for her,” Penske said Saturday. “That’s a great team. They’re the ones that’s always been competitive there. I take my hat off that she wants to continue to go back to open wheel. That’s going to be terrific for the sport and there’s going to be a lot of interest around the country.”

Patrick was highly marketable early in her career even though wins were rare. She won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2013, but finished 24th in the standings the last two seasons. She won her only IndyCar race in 2008, in Japan. Patrick never scored a top-five finish in NASCAR and had only seven top 10s (though she led laps at the Daytona 500) in 189 career starts.

Penske, a 16-time winner as a car owner of the Indy 500, said Patrick would return to IndyCar a better driver.

“I think she’s going to come back to IndyCar a lot tougher having run in NASCAR,” he said. “I think she’s going to be someone that, in a good car, is going to pick it up. She’s got plenty of time to practice.”

Team Penske won the owner championship Saturday in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. Sam Hornish Jr., who won three IndyCar titles and the 2006 Indy 500, said the sport would welcome back Patrick.

“She’s probably going to have a better shot at Indy because of what she’s done the last five years,” Hornish said.

Patrick has not revealed the team she’ll race for but surely a package deal with the same team and same sponsor for the biggest races in motorsports would make her again racing’s most marketable driver.

“I think it’s a great way for her to say, hey, I’m here, I’ve done it, I’m going to go back to the two biggest races and see if I can’t get out on top,” Penske said.

Penske can win a NASCAR championship with Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup race.

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