IndyCar points leader Alex Palou third in first Long Beach practice; Pato O’Ward struggles

IndyCar practice Long Beach
Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

LONG BEACH, California — With the NTT IndyCar title at stake, points leader Alex Palou got his weekend off to a great start while his championship rivals struggled Friday in the opening practice for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Palou, who is making his Long Beach debut, turned the third-fastest lap (1 minute, 9.4554 seconds) during the 45-minute session on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile street circuit. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver ranked just behind Colton Herta (1:09.2680) and Simon Pagenaud (1:09.4334).

“Good session,” Palou told NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider. “I like the track. This was all about getting to know the track and see how that car was handling.”

FRIDAY PRACTICE: Speeds from the first session at Long Beach

It didn’t go as smoothly for Pato O’Ward, who trails Palou by 35 points entering Sunday’s season finale (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). The normally upbeat Arrow McLaren SP driver was dejected after ranking 16th in practice (1:10.2451).

“That’s where we’re at,” O’Ward told NBC Sports reporter Kevin Lee. “We need to work. Just everywhere. We just need to sort it out and find time. I guess we yard-sale the car (for qualifying Saturday) and see where we go.”

Josef Newgarden, who remains mathematically eligible for the title at a 48-point deficit but virtually needs to score maximum points and O’Ward and Palou to falter, was 10th fastest after being penalized 5 minutes for a red flag when his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet made light contact with a tire barrier in a Turn 9 spin.

“Pretty short for us,” Newgarden said. “We rolled off with a couple of gremlins and didn’t make much work in the first session. but I’ve got a good feel for the car, and it feels like we have something to work with. I feel confident going into (Saturday), just need some time to digest everything.”

Felix Rosenqvist, O’Ward’s Arrow McLaren SP teammate, was fourth fastest (1:09.4870), and Ryan Hunter-Reay was fifth (1:09.5154).

Hunter-Reay is making his final start with Andretti Autosport, which announced Friday that Romain Grosjean will drive the No. 28 Dallara-Honda next season.

Aside from Newgarden’s spin, Scott Dixon, Oliver Askew and Jimmie Johnson also had incidents during the first practcice but avoided any major damage.

The biggest moment came for Herta, who somehow saved his No. 26 Dallara-Honda as it went sideways off a corner after bottoming out over a curb.

“I thought I was going to hit the wall,” Herta said. “Luckily, I don’t know what happened, but it didn’t. Kind of one of those things where you have big front tires, sometimes the car saves itself. That’s kind of what happened there. I was just along for the ride.

There will be another practice Saturday at noon ET (Peacock Premium) before qualifying for the season finale at 3:05 p.m. ET (NBCSN/Peacock Premium).

IndyCar disappointed by delay of video game but aiming to launch at start of 2024

IndyCar video game 2024

An IndyCar executive said there is “absolutely” disappointment that its long-awaited video game recently was delayed beyond its target date, but the series remains optimistic about the new title.

“Well, I don’t know how quick it will be, but the whole situation is important to us,” Penske Entertainment president and CEO Mark Miles said during a news conference Monday morning to announce IndyCar’s NTT title sponsorship. “Motorsport Games has spent a lot of money, a lot of effort to create an IndyCar title. What we’ve seen of that effort, which is not completely obvious, is very reassuring.

“I think it’s going to be outstanding. That’s our shared objective, that when it is released, it’s just widely accepted. A great credit both to IndyCar racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, something that our fans love.”

In June 2021, IndyCar announced a new partnership with Motorsport Games to create and distribute an IndyCar video game for the PC and Xbox and PlayStation consoles in 2023.

But during an earnings call last week, Motorsport Games said the IndyCar game had been delayed to 2024 to ensure high quality.

Somewhat compounding the delay is that IndyCar’s license for iRacing expired after the end of the 2022 season because of its exclusive agreement with Motorsport Games.

That’s resulted in significant changes for IndyCar on iRacing, which had provided a high-profile way for the series to stay visible during its 2020 shutdown from the pandemic. (Players still can race an unbranded car but don’t race on current IndyCar tracks, nor can they stream).

That’s helped ratchet up the attention on having a video game outlet for IndyCar.

“I wish we had an IndyCar title 10 years ago,” said Miles, who has been working with the organization since 2013. “We’ve been close, but we’ve had these I think speed bumps.”

IndyCar is hopeful the Motorsports Game edition will be ready at the start of 2024. Miles hinted that beta versions could be unveiled to reporters ahead of the time “to begin to show the progress in a narrow way to make sure we’ve got it right, to test the progress so that we’re ready when they’re ready.”

It’s been nearly 18 years since the release of the most recent IndyCar video game for console or PC.

“(We) better get it right,” Miles said. “It’s something we’re very close to and continue to think about what it is to make sure we get it over the line in due course.”