Carlos Munoz breaks up Team Penske in Firestone 600 qualifying (VIDEO)

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FORT WORTH – After 22 of 23 cars qualified for the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, the top 10 comprised the collective armies of Penske and Ganassi.

The Honda of Graham Rahal, as it has done consistently in recent weeks, had managed to sneak passed their defenses, posting a fifth-place speed of 217.438 mph. The front four looked to be the impenetrable Fort Penske, manned by Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Then, Honda and Andretti Autosport launched its final volley: Carlos Munoz.

The Colombian driver’s average speed of 217.831 mph knocked Montoya out of the front four and gave Munoz, who claimed his first-career IndyCar win last weekend in the Dual of Detroit, the fourth starting position, his best starting position since starting there at Mid-Ohio last year.

“For sure it’s tough, it’s not when you go for it…you have to be there for two laps,” Munoz said. “A whole distance race, it’s impossible to (drive) the car like that. For two laps, we’re just hanging in there.”

The next Andretti Autosport car on the starting grid is Marco Andretti in 11th.

“Before qualifying, I thought the Chevy’s would be quicker than all of, but like I’ve said, I think Penske is a big step forward farther than everyone,” Munoz said. “I don’t know if it’s qualifying trim or if they’re were in racing trim, but tonight we’ll see more of where we are.”

Munoz was 10th fastest in the first practice session at the 1.5-mile track, held in the late morning, a far cry from the late evening and early night Saturday’s race will be run in.

In last year’s TMS race, Munoz started started 10th and finished 13th.

“Just qualifying for the race, hopefully with more aero, we can (do) more for Honda tomorrow,” Munoz said. “Qualifying is not really important here. It’s important because it’s hard  to pass on this track. Cleaner air, the tires work less.”

James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.