With co-driver Jimmie Johnson set to arrive, Tony Kanaan paces Indy 500 practice

Jimmie Johnson Kanaan Indy
Mykal McEldowney/USA TODAY Sports Images
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INDIANAPOLIS –Jimmie Johnson isn’t driving at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, but the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion might have something big to celebrate in person at the storied track.

On the eve of Johnson’s arrival at Indy (where he will be a studio analyst on NBC Sports’ qualifying coverage Saturday and Sunday), No. 48 Dallara-Honda co-driver Tony Kanaan turned the fastest lap Thursday on the third day of Indy 500 practice.

The 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner outpaced Conor Daly (225.245), Santino Ferrucci (224.922 before he crashed and injured his left foot), Josef Newgarden (224.885) and Scott Dixon (224.666).

Though the “Fast Friday” session will feature a turbo boost of about 90 horsepower that will offer a better preview of pole qualifying Sunday, Kanaan consistently has been among the fastest, and Ganassi has led practice for the past two days (with Dixon topping Wednesday).

THURSDAY SPEED CHARTClick here to view who was fastest on Day 3

COMBINED PRACTICE RESULTSTop speeds through the first three days

“All in all I think we’re having a strong week as far as racing,” Kanaan told NBC Sports reporter Dillon Welch. “I won’t be able to sleep tonight. Tomorrow night’s going to be worse. But if I didn’t have this feeling, I’d say it would be time not to be doing this. I love it.”

With Johnson (who also will be an NBC analyst for the May 30 race), committed exclusively to the 13 road and street course races this season (most recently finishing 24th at the IMS road course last week), Kanaan is driving the No. 48 on ovals – starting with the doubleheader three weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway (while Johnson went dirt bike riding with his daughter Lydia).

Though they have spent time together at the Chip Ganassi Racing shop for commercial shoots, Kanaan and Johnson have yet to spend a day together at the racetrack as teammates.

But Kanaan said Johnson “has been calling every day” since his Texas debut in the No. 48.

“I’m like if you wanted not to run, why did you invite me, because you’re going to bother me every bloody day,” the 2004 IndyCar champion said jokingly. “call me twice (to ask) ‘How it’s going? How’s this? how’s that?’

JIMMIE JOHNSON WATCH, RACE 3: Another day of learning at Indy GMR GP

“So he’s excited. It’s great to see how engaged he is even when he’s not in the race. So it’s been a blast. I’m pretty sure he’s going to pop up and see how it’s going. Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe he gets excited. I don’t know what’s going to happen if he gets excited. Going to have to find another car if he wants to drive the 48.”

Kanaan, who has one more race at Wide World Technology Raceway after the Indy 500, said he will be attending a couple of more IndyCar races this season to watch Johnson, “but I’ll be just another guy.

“We have (Ganassi consultant) Dario (Franchitti) there who is helping him quite a bit,” Kanaan said. “He has the best coach. But yeah, it will be interesting to see Jimmie in the timing stand.”

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.