Hinchcliffe fastest again in wild third practice at Barber

Joe Skibinski / IndyCar

After topping yesterday’s second practice, James Hinchcliffe was once again the fastest driver in an eventful third practice session for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on Saturday.

The Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver was the only driver to post a lap under 1 minute, 9 seconds. His fastest lap of 1 minute, 8.7351 seconds knocked Sebastien Bourdais (1 minute, 9.0351 seconds) off the top spot in the final lap of the session.

Watch the race on Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN or at NBCSports.com or the NBC Sports app

Just as Hinchcliffe remained quick, Practice 3 continued another trend of red flags coming out for cars off-course.

Zach Veach was the first driver to bring out the red flag, when he locked up entering Turn 5 and slid his No. 26 Andretti Autosport car into a gravel trap with 35 minutes remaining in the session.

Hinchcliffe’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, later brought out another red flag after going off in Turn 1 and making contact with the outside wall with 15 minutes to go, causing significant suspension damage to his No. 7 car. Ericsson walked away from the accident safely.

Right before Ericsson’s trouble, Jack Harvey had spun unassisted in Turn 1 and Ryan Hunter-Reay also went off there. But both drivers were able to avoid further trouble; Hunter-Reay in particular managed to go through the gravel pit and avoid the wall.

The session almost ended under red after Graham Rahal became stuck in the gravel pit near Turn 5. However, INDYCAR officials allowed drivers to make one more lap under green before waving the checkered flag on the only practice session of the day.

Scott Dixon (1 minute, 9.2334 seconds) was third fastest, with Colton Herta (1 minute, 9.2444 seconds) and Takuma Sato (1 minute, 9.2692 seconds) rounding out the top five.

Qualifying will take place later today at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN & NBC Sports Gold.

Full Practice 3 results 

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Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”