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.

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”