Perez can reprise underdog role in Malaysia

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Somewhat fortuitously, Sergio Perez has the opportunity to reprise his starring effort of a year ago in Malaysia in an underdog role once again.

The difficult weekend for McLaren in Melbourne has lowered expectations for the team heading into Malaysia. Perez’s teammate Jenson Button has gone so far as to say the McLaren won’t win a race this year in its current configuration.

For Perez, who probably would have won in last year’s rain-drenched race in a faster Sauber Ferrari before sliding off course while chasing Fernando Alonso, it’s a sterling opportunity to punch above his and the team’s weight once again.

“For me, Sepang holds many happy memories – I had one of the best races of my career there last year where I was able to push Fernando for victory until the closing laps,” he said. “It’s a fantastic circuit, really fast and demanding. It would be great to pull off another unexpected result for the team this year.”

The Mexican driver still finished second, marking his first of three podium finishes he secured for the Swiss team a year ago.

Perez realizes that the team’s main objective is just maximizing its package, and is probably doubtful to contend for the victory unless the race becomes a tire or weather lottery. One of his noted strong suits is his ability to take it easy on the tires throughout a stint.

“Last weekend’s race was a difficult one for everybody on the team, but it’s shown us exactly what we need to do to close down the gap to the leaders,” he admitted. “This weekend in Malaysia will be about trying to maximize the package we have while knowing that it’s not going to be enough to allow us to fight for overall victory.”

Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.