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Busy Phoenix test sees more than 5,000 laps banked

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In total, the Verizon IndyCar Series’ open test at Phoenix International Raceway consisted of four sessions: two during the day and two during the evening, each lasting three hours. There were 23 car/driver combinations that turned laps (of note: 21 cars were entered, but Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi each took laps in the other’s car).

Because of the number of sessions and cars participating, the lap count was expected to be relatively high. Several drivers completed more than 100 laps in at least one session, with a handful even doing so in multiple sessions.

Among the notable drivers to break the 100-lap barrier was Graham Rahal, driving a lone entry for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “I don’t know why, but our guys like to pound laps, so that’s all right. We’ll just keep driving when they tell me to,” he quipped after the Friday evening session, in which he turned 114 laps.

For Rahal, the track time as a single-car entry over the weekend was paramount in maximizing the team’s efforts. “One of my concerns is always just stalling out,” he explained. “As a single car, you see the amount of laps we’re pounding here, and we have to. I mean, we’re trying things on tires we probably shouldn’t be running on, but we have to try to do things because as a single car you’re only getting knowledge from one source.”

Another driver who enjoyed a heavy workload was Josef Newgarden on his first major outing in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. Newgarden accounted for 99 laps on Friday night and 114 laps on Saturday night. For Newgarden, it presented a great opportunity to spend more time with his new team. “The Verizon 2 car team is all new to me, so they’re not new to each other, so there’s great continuity there, but I’m new to the group,” he detailed. “So they’re trying to understand me and I’m trying to understand them.”

Dale Coyne Racing driver Sebastien Bourdais also cracked the 100-lap mark during a session, putting 103 laps of work in on Saturday night. For Bourdais, it was an opportunity to get reacquainted with Craig Hampson, with whom he won four consecutive championships in the Champ Car World Series between 2004 and 2007, and run through a myriad of changes to the chassis. “The guys did a great job. I don’t recall that I’ve ever gone through so many changes, big changes on the car over a two-day test, and we got out of this with a very happy car,” said the Frenchman.

However, the prize for the most laps turned goes to defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud, who totaled 303 laps across both days, including a whopping 124 on Friday night. For Pagenaud, it helped knock the rust off. A stalwart at the Rolex 24 in past years, Pagenaud elected to forego a driving opportunity at the 2017 edition of the endurance classic, especially after a busy off-season. “It’s been a busy winter with the championship and all the appearances everywhere in the world,” said Pagenaud, who did a tour of France, among other appearances, following his championship run. “It was good for me to get some time off, stay with my family. That’s something I really needed.”

For Pagenaud, the Phoenix test marked his first significant driving duty since the Petit Le Mans in early October. “This year I just didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do for my program and for being pretty focused with Penske at attacking another title,” he said of his decision to forego the Rolex 24, though he did attend as a spectator.

The 21 drivers who participated at the Phoenix test completed 5,134 laps across all four sessions. The next open test takes place at Barber Motorsports Park on March 21, just over a week after the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Rossi charges to fifth after starting 18th at Barber

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Alexander Rossi has had a black cloud hanging over his head in each of the first two races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. Last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner suffered an ill-timed caution at St. Petersburg that hurt his team’s strategy and then dropped out at Long Beach after an engine failure when he was running in the top three.

That misfortune continued on into Saturday, as he and the Andretti-Herta Autosport team couldn’t find the speed in qualifying, leaving him 18th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, everything turned up roses come race time and Rossi had arguably the drive of the day. Rossi was immediately on the charge and used a combination of strategy and speed to run seventh after the opening sequence of pit stops. He hung around the top five the rest of the day, eventually moving up to fifth after Charlie Kimball and Will Power made late-race pit stops.

All told, it was a remarkable run for him.

“It’s good considering we started 18th,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “We were pretty disappointed yesterday. We were on the verge of desperation. We had to diagnose what happened Saturday.”

The result vaulted Rossi all the way up to 10th in the championship standings, one point ahead of Tony Kanaan. He trails points leader Sebastien Bourdais by 57 markers heading into the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

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Bourdais hangs on to points lead after Barber

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Sebastien Bourdais’ drive to eighth is not quite the headline-maker to match his win at St. Petersburg or his second at Long Beach, but it was still a championship-caliber drive on a weekend where he and Dale Coyne Racing didn’t quite have the pace they had in the opening two races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Bourdais advanced out of his Round 1 qualifying group, but went no further after turning the 12th fastest time in Round 2, leaving him 12th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, he managed to weather the storm and keep his nose clean, taking home an unspectacular but respectable eighth.

“Yeah not quite sure what did what. Maybe the conditions got us more in the operation of the tires,” he told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee when asked about his struggles during the weekend.

Bourdais also added that might have been able to pass Tony Kanaan for seventh in the final laps, but he couldn’t quite do enough to make a run at him.

“I really thought I had (Kanaan) there. He used the pushed to pass. I didn’t forget! I really thought I had him. He used the push to pass on the way back. Shame on me. It was a good fight. Not the greatest day but top 10 is good for the guys and the Sonny’s BBQ car.”

Bourdais leads Scott Dixon by six points and Josef Newgarden by seven. Simon Pagenaud sits 10 markers behind while James Hinchcliffe is 15 back after three races.

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A full day of Fernando: Alonso takes Barber by storm (VIDEO)

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Fernando Alonso was a busy man today at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as he prepares for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and made the rounds of media and promotion in doing so as part of his joint entry into the race thanks to McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport.

The two-time Formula 1 World Champion arrived on pit lane for Sunday’s morning warmup and set up in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda pit, where he’d interact with Michael Andretti and the rest of the team.

Alonso had a quick sit-in in Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Honda:

Alonso then made it to the media center for a formal press conference with Andretti, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, the head of INDYCAR’s parent company. Alonso was high on life through most of the press conference and had a few playful jabs at some of his competitors.

Before the race, Alonso signed some autographs for fans, who were pleased he was on site.

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From there, it was a chance to head to the grid and speak with NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell.

Alonso’s day wasn’t done, as he visited both the NBCSN booth and the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network booth for further interviews. A portion of the NBCSN interview is below.

Alonso will now head to Indianapolis with the team this week for a seat fit and further preparation for his May 3 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his first run in the car. He’ll then be off to Sochi, Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, which you can see on NBCSN (times here).

Dixon maintains excellent start despite another tough P2 at Barber

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Such is the brilliance of Scott Dixon that his start to his 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – finishes of third, fourth and second – can be viewed as disappointing because potential wins have gone begging.

The latest chapter of his almost-winning-but-not-quite saga to open this year’s campaign occurred at the track where he has his best results without a win, Barber Motorsports Park.

Dixon was top Honda on the day in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, but alas, one spot short of a victory as he scored his seventh Barber podium in eight races – all of them either seconds or thirds.

On this occasion, Dixon did his usual masterstroke of fuel saving by running longest in the first stint, running to Lap 24 and leading two laps.

Dixon also got ahead of Josef Newgarden on the final pit stop sequence despite running behind him and Will Power on the road during the middle stint.

But after a restart from the second and last full-course caution on Lap 68, Newgarden muscled his way past Dixon at Turns 15 and 16 for third place on the inside, leaving Dixon very little room on corner exit in a forceful but not dirty passing move.

While that was for third at the time, it wound up being the pass for the win because Dixon’s teammate, then-leader Charlie Kimball, pitted from an off-sequence strategy and the would-be winner, Power, pitted with a left rear puncture.

It left Dixon high and dry but in his usual so good, yet so close, P2, with three laps led. He felt worse for Power and gave Newgarden plaudits for the move.

“I saw him late coming into Turn 15 or 16. I tried to hold him back, but I wasn’t able to hold him back. It’s deserved for him,” Dixon told NBCSN’s Marty Snider post-race.

“The NTT Data car was strong. I feel bad for Will Power. It was a false flat tire perhaps? So yeah, that and a good job to Josef.”

Dixon elaborated a bit more on the day in the post-race press conference.

“I typically hold a fairly tight line there. But, yeah, he dove it in there, with some speed. He couldn’t make the corner at the appropriate time, so we kind of both ran wide there. But, you know, it was a great move.

“Josef did a hell of a job there on the blacks. Obviously had a clean start and really had some good longevity on that stint and was able to pit short and jump on reds.

“I think, you know, I feel bad for Will obviously with the flat tire issue there, but then also left the door open a little bit in 16. Josef put his nose in there. Tried to turn down, but through that whole complex, 14, 15, 16, I was just so loose. If I turned more, would have spun out.

“Credit to Josef. Drove a hell of a race. Team Penske, congratulations to them. Seventh podium here at Alabama without a win. Good in a lot of ways, but unfortunately we come here to win and we came up short.”

Despite not winning, Dixon still sits second in the points, just six points behind Sebastien Bourdais, who finished eighth.

Dixon and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series head to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix next weekend (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), where he has a win to defend.