Mexicans Perez, Gutierrez step up huge in qualifying

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This weekend at Austin is as close to a home Grand Prix for Mexicans Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez. With both of their futures in Formula One uncertain after next week in Brazil, they both delivered excellent qualifying performances on Saturday.

Perez qualified seventh and evened the score at 9 on his head-to-head mark versus Jenson Button at McLaren in qualifying this year. Meanwhile Gutierrez made Q3 for the third time this year (Singapore, Korea) and ended 10th after the last five drivers to set times in Q3 all went quicker.

You know the story on Perez by now. Dropped by McLaren earlier this week, Perez is now under pressure to deliver a solid result to boost his stock for 2014. His second run in Q3, on the mediums, got down to a 1:37.452 – only three tenths off Romain Grosjean in third. The seventh place grid spot matches his best run of the year, also achieved at Monaco. Button qualified 13th and will lose three spots after overtaking during red flags in free practice one.

“Obviously, I’m very pleased, but, when you’re so close to the cars in front, you still want to improve,” Perez admitted. “In that respect, I’m slightly disappointed – but if you’d told me I’d be seventh before the start of qualifying, I’d have taken it.

“For quali, I was just able to relax and focus,” he added. “At the end of the day, I’m a racing driver – I’ve been doing this my whole life. When I get in the car, I just forget about everything else and concentrate on my own performance.”

Meanwhile, Gutierrez is uncertain at Sauber for 2014. Russian teenager Sergey Sirotkin is set for a seat assuming he earns his superlicense, and either himself, teammate Nico Hulkenberg or Perez, possibly, is in play for the second seat. With Hulkenberg qualifying fourth today there’s a good chance “Guti’s” run may be overlooked as a result, but it was no less of an impressive effort to make Q3 when a McLaren, a Mercedes and a Ferrari didn’t.

“At the moment I’m focused on what’s happening right now,” Gutierrez said. “Right now we are in Austin, it’s a very important race for us, one of the most special of my career, of our careers, because we are both Mexicans.

“We are here to do our best and we have great opportunities to do good results in these last two races. So I’m going to try to take advantage of that and then after that see what’s going to happen.”

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

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
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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.