Different agendas for Jeff Gordon, Dale Jr. at Homestead test

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When you’re fighting for a Sprint Cup championship, every bit of speed counts.

And that’s what Jeff Gordon was looking for during the first day of a two-day test session at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Gordon, the current Chase Grid leader and Hendrick Motorsports’ sole remaining driver in title contention, wants to make sure his No. 24 Chevrolet is on point in case he returns to the 1.5-mile South Florida oval with a Championship Race berth.

“It’s all about speed – just having a car that handles well,” Gordon said to reporters during a media conference. “This is a very challenging racetrack, especially in the heat of the day. It’s abrasive, it’s slick, and it’s hard to get a hold of. It’s really difficult to get the balance right on this track. You really struggle sliding the front tires getting into [Turn] 1 and then, the back end coming off of [Turn] 4.

“We have had some good cars here the last couple of years and want to simulate that. We hope that we’re in the battle for the Championship when we come back here, and if we are, we have a car that can win the race.”

Gordon won the season finale at Homestead in 2012, and if he can advance out of the Eliminator Round, it may take another such performance for him to drive away with a fifth Cup crown.

Meanwhile, his Hendrick teammate and Martinsville winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that his No. 88 team was spending some of its track time today working with the 2015 rules package before it would go back to the current package for the remainder of the test.

Having been eliminated in the Contender Round, Earnhardt is zeroing in on trophies at this point. A season-ending win at Homestead would be a nice bookend to his season-opening triumph in the Daytona 500, and it bears noting that he was a contender late in last year’s Homestead race before finishing third behind winner Denny Hamlin and runner-up Matt Kenseth.

“We weren’t good enough on the short runs to run the bottom as long as we needed to, and the 11 [Hamlin] got by us on a restart because he was actually a little better than us in the first 10 laps [of a stint],” he recalled. “But as soon as he got by me, after about four laps, we were really much quicker than him as we all gravitated toward the top of the track.

“So [in this test] we’re gonna concentrate on trying to figure out what we need to do to give ourselves the ability to be a little stronger on those first five, six laps that are real critical after a restart. We need to be running more laps on the bottom of the race track, get the car turning into the corner and doing some things we need it to do so we can be more successful in defending our position.”

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.

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET 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 the injured Oliver Askew, 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 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.”

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.