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Hildebrand sets unofficial fastest lap at Phoenix on Saturday afternoon

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – JR Hildebrand dropped the hammer in both tow and no-tow speed components during the third of four three-hour test sessions at Phoenix International Raceway, for this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View test.

The driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet has set an unofficial track record at the 1.022-mile oval with a lap of 19.0401 seconds, or 193.234 mph. While that speed was set with a tow, Hildebrand also posted the fastest no-tow speed of 192.844 mph.

Both speeds are quicker than the official track record, last year’s pole run from Helio Castroneves at 192.631 mph and 19.0997 seconds.

Hildebrand’s laps today are unofficial track records because they are set in testing; official track records only come in qualifying and race conditions.

But the 29-year-old who lives in Boulder had a feeling his Ed Carpenter Racing team, which was very fast at Phoenix last year, would be on pace almost from the off.

“We’ve got two whole days here. Honestly for us I think it’s great because it gives us that little bit of extra time to kind of make sure that we’re just hitting our marks along the way,” Hildebrand said Friday. “I had every confidence getting in the car first session that we were going to start in the window. It’s just about I think all of us together being smart about how we approach it, and for me it’s an awesome sort of little change of pace to be back at it full-time.”

Lest Hildebrand have all the fun at the top of the timesheets, his team boss and teammate Carpenter was second in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet with a best speed of 192.404 mph. His best non-tow speed was 191.298 mph.

Team Penske was next up with Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves and Will Power respectively before the first of the Hondas, Mikhail Aleshin for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in sixth.

All of the top 11 runners in this session, held under overcast skies with ambient temperatures starting at 77 degrees and track temperatures of 94, were over the 190-mph threshold.

The first incident of the weekend occurred merely a few minutes into the session, as Alexander Rossi got low through Turns 1 and 2 in his No. 98 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda for Andretti-Herta Autosport and backed hard into the Turn 2 wall. Rossi was checked and cleared to drive. However, this marked the first accident for Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion, in an IndyCar.

Rossi only did one lap with his second lap seeing the accident occur on a planned qualifying simulation. Other low runners this session – Ed Jones, the rookie, only did eight laps, Marco Andretti did just 14 and Carpenter just 16.

Prior to the session, Helio Castroneves joined PIR officials for a groundbreaking session for the new construction and improvements for the “New Phoenix Raceway.” We’ll have a separate post on that to come.

Times and speeds are below. The final session of the weekend occurs from 6 to 9 p.m. MT and local time tonight.

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IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.