Colton Herta tops IndyCar St. Pete practice; Scott Dixon 16th, Josef Newgarden eighth

IndyCar practice Colton Herta

Colton Herta turned the fastest lap (1 minute, 1.1306 seconds) in the lone NTT IndyCar Series practice Saturday for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as the session ended with several drivers going off course without crashing.

James Hinchcliffe was second (1:01:2279) around the 14-turn, 1.8-mile course, followed by rookie Alex Palou, Takuma Sato (who announced an extension earlier Saturday) and Sebastien Bourdais.

Qualifying for Sunday’s season finale will take place at 3 p.m. ET (NBC Sports Gold).

PRACTICE REPORT: Full speed chart from Saturday at St. Petersburg

SUNDAY AT ST. PETE: Details for watching the Firestone Grand Prix on race day

The session ended with Oliver Askew making light contact with a tire barrier. Just behind Askew (who was medically cleared to return after missing two races with concussion-like symptoms), Scott McLaughlin also went off course at Turn 13 but avoided damage to his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet.

McLaughlin also skidded into runoff areas after locking the brakes two other times, but he still ranked an impressive 10th of 24 drivers in his first NTT IndyCar Series practice. The three-time Supercars champion will make his IndyCar debut Sunday after Team Penske announced Friday night that he will run the 2021 season.

“Awesome to jump aboard,” McLaughlin told NBC Sports Gold reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s everything I’ve dreamed of; the boys at Team Penske have been amazing at getting me sorted and comfortable. There’s still a lot more to learn. We did a good lap on the primaries (tires); I think if we could have got something down on the reds (faster alternate tires), it would have been good, but I kept stuffing it up, so I’ve got to chat with the driver a little bit.

“It’s hard to learn on a track that’s full of concrete walls, but I’m just creeping up on it. I feel nice when you have grip. It’s a solid session and exactly what we want to do. We just want to complete every lap. I had a couple of misdemeanors, just trying to do a quick spin like I would in a Supercar and stalled it. I need to work on my clutch control, but we’re OK.”

Points leader Scott Dixon also found trouble, bending a suspension part after light contact with the wall. He was 16th fastest. Josef Newgarden, his only rival for the championship, was eighth on the speed chart.

“I think the car was really good, quickest in quite a while,” Dixon, who has been struggling in qualifying, told Lee. “We definitely have some speed for a top three (in qualifying).”

CLINCH SCENARIOS: How the championship can be decided Sunday

Newgarden, who trails by 32 points, told NBC Sports Gold reporter Marty Snider: “I don’t know that I have much comment until we sit down for an hour or two, but I think we’ve got something to work with, without a doubt.”

Other practice incidents:

–Felix Rosenqvist brought out a red flag with 5 minutes remaining by spinning into Turn 13. He was penalized by IndyCar for the rest of the session.

–Alexander Rossi tagged the Turn 2 wall with 35 minutes left but avoided major damage to his No. 27 Dallara-Honda, which ranked sixth fastest.

–Santino Ferrucci missed a corner but found refuge in a runoff zone.

Click here for the speeds in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg practice.

After Will Power extension, Marcus Ericsson among IndyCar drivers awaiting new deals

IndyCar free agents
Chris Owens, Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

FORT WORTH, Texas – Defending series champion Will Power’s name is off the board of potential IndyCar free agents, but there’s still much to be settled in the field – starting with the reigning Indy 500 winner.

Marcus Ericsson is waiting on a contract offer to remain with Chip Ganassi Racing beyond the 2023 season (his fourth with the team). The Swede said he’s made it clear to car owner Chip Ganassi that he wants to stay in the No. 8 Dallara-Honda, which has four victories since June 2021.

“Yeah, it’s up to him, basically,” Ericsson said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. “He needs to give me an offer for ’24 onward. The ball is in his corner. I really enjoy it at Ganassi, and we’ve done a lot of great things together and would love to continue, but the ball is in his corner. He knows very well what I want.”

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Two days before Ericsson won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener March 5, Ganassi sang the praises of the emerging star driver to a small group of reporters.

“I want him here beyond this year,” Ganassi said of Ericsson. “He seems to have gotten more out of winning the Indy 500 than anyone else has of recent time, which is a good thing. He did a good job. He’s been everywhere. It’s been a really positive thing for Marcus, the team, the series. He’s grown with that as well.”

Ericsson didn’t sew up his current deal until late in his breakthrough 2021 season (after a memorable victory in the inaugural Music City Grand Prix). So he isn’t necessarily anxious about it but conceded he “was thinking a bit about it over the winner in the offseason and talking about it

“But now that the season has started, I told my managers and everyone I want to focus on the driving. They focus on those things. Now the season is on, and I want to try to win races, win another 500 and championship. That’s where my focus is. (A new contract) is one of those things that happens when it happens. But I’m happy where I am, and I want to do well.”

IndyCar’s two best teams, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, tend to be very tight-lipped about their drivers’ contract status.

Power confirmed Friday to journalist Bruce Martin that his new deal was for multiple seasons. That means all three of Penske’s drivers are in multiple-year contracts (unlike Power’s deal, Scott McLaughlin’s extension was announced by the team last year).

But there is more uncertainty at Ganassi’s four cars aside from Ericsson. While Scott Dixon has a ride for as long as he wants (and the six-time champion has given no indication of retiring), Ganassi’s other two other seats have yet to be solidified beyond 2023.

The No. 11 is being split this year by rookie Marcus Armstrong and veteran Takuma Sato this season. In  the No. 10, Alex Palou is believed to be in his final year at Ganassi before heading to Arrow McLaren.

That expected move would cast doubt on the future of Felix Rosenqvist, who returned to Arrow McLaren when the team was unable to bring in Palou (who was embroiled in a contract dispute with Ganassi).

Aside from Penske, virtually every other IndyCar team (including Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Meyer Shank Racing, which has Helio Castroneves in a contract year) has seats that potentially could open for next season, and even drivers who appear to be under contract for next year still could be on the move (via buyouts and option years).

Though Juncos Hollinger Racing announced a “long-term, multiyear contract partnership” last July with Callum Ilott, but the second-year driver was cagey Friday when asked about how long the extension ran.

“It’s for whatever I want it to be,” said Ilott, who finished a career-best fifth at St. Petersburg. “I’ll say that.”

Before returning to JHR, Ilott turned enough heads as a rookie to draw interest from several teams, and he indicated Friday that he still would be listening.

“I’d love to talk to some other big teams,” Ilott said. “Nothing stops me from talking. Look, you’ve got to be fair. I agreed to (the deal), but it’s pretty obvious that I’m quite interested as people are interested in me as a driver, but I need to focus on the job I’ve got here.

“I’m confident whether it’s in one year, two years, three years, four years, that if I’m wanted now, I’ll always be wanted. I’m a good enough driver that I don’t need to lack confidence in that side. … I’m not worried.”