IndyCar

Graham Rahal is fastest in Thursday’s Indy 500 practice, followed by Kanaan, Andretti

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Graham Rahal was a completely changed man Thursday.

A day earlier, Rahal struggled during the second full day of practice for the May 27 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He was the 34th fastest (222.102 mph) in the 35-driver field that will attempt to qualify this weekend for the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

But on Thursday, it was as if the clouds parted and sunshine rained down on Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team, as the younger Rahal turned in Thursday’s fastest speed at 226.047 mph in his Honda.

“Today was definitely a better day for sure,” Rahal said. “From the get-go, I knew that yesterday (Wednesday) we didn’t put in any effort to actually put in a decent lap. I found myself all day yesterday in the middle of the pack. It’s impossible to put up a number from that position. So there was a lot of reason and motivation to go and try to put together a decent one today. It was a solid run.

“Today was definitely a good day for us overall just to make a huge step forward in a lot of phases of it. We can all rest a little bit easier.”

2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan was second-fastest (225.896 mph), while Wednesday’s fastest driver, Marco Andretti, was third-fastest Thursday (225.584 mph).

Ed Carpenter was fourth-fastest (225.093 mph), followed by Sage Karam (224.920), defending Verizon IndyCar Series champ Josef Newgarden (224.713), rookie Zachary Claman Demelo(224.665), three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves (224.575), Spencer Pigot (224.251) and Gabby Chaves (224.180).

From an overall standpoint of the first three days and four practice rounds completed so far this week, Andretti remains the fastest driver thanks to Wednesday’s top speed of 227.053 mph.

In fact, the four fastest drivers overall thus far this week all recorded their speeds on Wednesday: Andretti, Scott Dixon (226.329 mph), defending Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato (226.108) and rookie Robert Wickens (226.086).

The final practice before Saturday and Sunday’s qualifying sessions to set the 33-car race day field takes place Friday.

However, teams will be closely watching the skies the next three days, as various forecasts call for the chance of rain between 80 and 100 percent Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Also of note Thursday, the first contact of the week, which also brought out the first non-track inspection yellow caution flag of the week, occurred in the final half-hour of the session.

J.R. Hildebrand grazed the outside wall exiting Turn 4. His car suffered minor to moderate front end and rear end damage.

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Reports: Fernando Alonso to test on September 5 at Barber Motorsports Park

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According to a number of media stories Thursday afternoon and evening, two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso will reportedly test an Indy car at Barber Motorsports Park on Wednesday, September 5.

The 2.38-mile permanent road course just outside Birmingham, Alabama, per those stories, will play host to Alonso as he reportedly tests with IndyCar’s Andretti Autosport team and Honda.

Honda Performance Development (HPD) President Art St. Cyr issued a statement late Thursday afternoon about Alonso’s reported upcoming test:

“Fernando Alonso is one of the premier racing drivers of this generation, and we very much enjoyed working with him at the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

“He has shown that he can be very competitive right off the bat, and it would be great for IndyCar if he were to decide to drive here full-time after his F1 career. Having Alonso as a driver would be an obvious benefit for any team or manufacturer.”

However, St. Cyr’s statement also included a reference to Honda potentially not being able to field a new engine for Alonso in the IndyCar series in 2019.

“Our engine lease agreements are made between HPD and specific teams,” St. Cyr’s statement said. “Several of our current IndyCar Series teams already have agreements in place with HPD for the 2019 season, and we have been operating near maximum capacity all year long to properly provide powerful, reliable engines for all of our teams.

“We have had discussions with several current and potential teams for 2019, and those discussions are ongoing.”

Rumors of Alonso potentially racing for a hybrid operation that would include Andretti Autosport, McLaren and Harding Racing have been picking up speed. But there’s one potential major hurdle: Harding’s Dallara’s are powered by Chevrolet engines.

Alonso announced earlier this week that he’d be retiring from Formula One at season’s end, saying he’s looking forward to new adventures.

Because of his loyalty to McLaren, it’s increasingly looking as if Alonso comes to IndyCar, McLaren will have some involvement – although perhaps not as much as it potentially could do if it went all-in with a full-time effort immediately in 2019.

There is no word whether Chevrolet or Harding Racing could potentially be on hand at the Sept. 5 test at BMP, even in just an observation role.

Since being part of the winning team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, Alonso’s desire to become only the second driver to win motorsport’s triple crown – the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500 – has increased exponentially.

He’s already won the first two; just a Indy 500 triumph remains on his bucket list.

The late Graham Hill is the only driver to have accomplished the triple crown feat to date.

Alonso, who turned 37 on July 29, has made just one prior IndyCar start, in the 2017 Indianapolis 500. He led 27 laps of the 200-lap event and appeared to have a car strong enough to win before it suffered engine failure with 21 laps remaining.

Instead of what likely could have been a top-five finish, if not a win, Alonso’s first foray into IndyCar racing ended disappointingly with a 24th-place finish.

In addition to being courted by IndyCar, NASCAR has also jumped into the Alonso sweepstakes, saying he’d be welcome to race in the 2019 Daytona 500.

Follow @JerryBonkowski