IndyCar practice speeds dominated by silly season heading into Belle Isle’s final race


DETROIT — The milk has barely been washed out of Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson’s firesuit, and the NTT IndyCar Series silly season has gone wild.

The Swede is the new points leader, free agency has picked up at a dizzying pace, and the reigning IndyCar champion said his name wrongly was placed into the rumor mill.

And it’s the last race on Belle Isle, to boot — and the opening practice to the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix fittingly was dominated by drivers who have been in the headlines the past couple of weeks.

Rookie Kyle Kirkwood, who recently was announced as heading to Andretti Autosport next season, paced Friday’s session in Detroit with a 1-minute, 16.1345-second lap around the 14-turn, 2.35-mile street course.

FRIDAY SESSION: Speeds from afternoon practice

CHEVROLET GRAND PRIX OF DETROIT: Schedules, entry list, how to watch

Though the 2021 Indy Lights champion wants to finish well in his lone season for AJ. Foyt Racing’s No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet, Kirkwood said his impending move had been known for a while.

“For me it’s really just not a focal point at all,” said Kirkwood, who won the Indy Lights title with Andretti and also won a GTD pole Friday as a late substitute driver in IMSA. “To me it hasn’t changed anything. It’s been, yeah, some time now that we’ve actually did it.

“For me it’s been the same thing. It’s the same goal always. We’ve got 11 races left. Right now we’re doing solid. Obviously the focus is still with A.J. Foyt Racing because all I want to do is win for the team because they worked really hard for it.”

After finishing runner-up in the Indy 500, Pato O’Ward was second fastest in practice for Arrow McLaren SP, which formally introduced new driver Alexander Rossi (whom Kirkwood will replace at Andretti) in a Friday news conference.

Though Rossi (who was third fastest Friday) and O’Ward will be teammates, it still is uncertain whether Felix Rosenqivst will stay as the third driver with McLaren adding a car next year

“So Felix is staying?” Helio Castroneves, who also is in a contract year, asked O’Ward in an interview after practice.

“I really hope he stays,” O’Ward said.

“OK,” said Castroneves, who was eighth fastest in practice. “No hint in who’s going to be the third car?

“No idea. I have no say.”

O’Ward is focused on winning his first championship, trying to pass new points leader Ericsson in the standings. Each won a Belle Isle race last season in the track’s final doubleheader weekend (after a nine-year run).

Sunday’s race will be the last at Belle Isle after three decades for IndyCar, which will move to a new downtown layout in 2023.

Rossi said he decided last summer that this seventh season with Andretti would be his last. Andretti held an exclusive negotiating window with Rossi but let him sign with McLaren early to facilitate its Kirkwood move. Rossi is approaching the three-year mark of his last victory.

“It was clear that I was going to look at different options and explore what was out there,” said Rossi. “I’ve driven for Andretti Autosport for a long time. Sometimes you need to change things, whether that’s on a personal side, a professional side or the both combined. I think it was time for a change.”

But what about that third McLaren seat next year?

O’Ward made a strong case to keep his current teammate Rosenqvist, who is in a contract year and still being evaluated by the team. He finished fourth in the Indy 500 but was involved in an incident Friday in practice (video above).

Rosenqvist, who missed two races after a crash at Detroit last year, was unhurt after sliding into a Turn 1 tire barrier

The name most associated with the open Arrow McLaren SP ride, though, has been defending series champion Alex Palou. The Spaniard won the IndyCar title in his first season driving for Ganassi – second in IndyCar – and has become a hot commodity in the paddock.

Palou was thrilled Friday to be part of the rumor mill but sdoesn’t know why his fellow competitors think he’s leaving Ganassi for McLaren.

“I’m good. I’m not talking to other teams,” Palou said. “I mean, my name is all around, but because somebody is interested doesn’t mean I am interested.”

NO REGRETS: The ink has only just dried on O’Ward’s contract extension with Arrow McLaren SP and he’s thinking big picture all the way. He lifted off the gas on the last lap at Indy as he challenged Ericsson for the win, and on Friday still thought it was the right decision.

O’Ward believes he couldn’t complete the winning pass and would have crashed – an inexcusable result in a race worth double points. Ericsson shot from eighth to first in the standings with the victory, while O’Ward moved from seventh to second and sits 13 points back from he lead.

“I 100% made the right call,” O’Ward said Friday. “I just don’t think trying to be a hero there was going to payoff in helping us win a championship. I think that was going to be a huge blow to the championship and just not worth it.”

Other drivers disagreed, with reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou insisting he’d have gone for the Indy 500 victory no matter what.

O’Ward had the backing of his team, though, as Arrow McLaren makes huge steps toward becoming one of IndyCar’s top organizations with the addition of Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner. O’Ward already had signed an extension last week and is the centerpiece of the organization, and McLaren has plans to build a state-of-the-art Indianapolis shop as it prepares to expand to three cars next year.

“What I’m proud of is Pato’s maturity to understand us as an organization,” said team president Taylor Kiel. “He made a move that was wise beyond his years with the bigger picture in mind. I know in his heart he wanted to keep it flat, see what happened. But something in the back of his mind said, `Let’s focus on the championship.’ That to me is a huge thing.”

DIXON’S MOOD: The Indy 500 was Scott Dixon’s to lose, and he did.

A speeding penalty on pit road decimated Dixon’s shot at a second Indy 500 victory after he’d dominated nearly the entire build-up to the race. He went over 234 mph in a record-setting pole-winning run and then led 95 of the 200 laps.

Dixon has made winning another Indy 500 the highest priority and the six-time IndyCar champion was “for sure devastated after the race,” said Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Palou.

The New Zealander insisted Friday he’s fine.

“We’re in Detroit now. I feel amazing,” said Dixon, who added he doesn’t often carry disappointments for long. “I’m pretty quick with that stuff. For me, it’s more about how everybody else feels. I think the saving grace was one of the Ganassi cars (Ericsson) still won the race.”

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.”