Two days of on-track testing for 21 Verizon IndyCar Series drivers and teams were literally like day and night.
Cars carrying Chevrolet engines and aero kits dominated the day sessions of the Phoenix Raceway open test, while those with Honda equipment filled the top of the leaderboard for the night practices. So, following 12 on-track hours and more than 5,000 laps run on the 1.022-mile oval, the competition for the upcoming 17-race season may be as tight as ever. That's saying something since the last 11 season championships have been decided at the final race.
JR Hildebrand, who returns to a full-season ride this year with Ed Carpenter Racing, claimed the honor of best lap of the weekend at 193.234 mph (19.0401 seconds) in the No. 21 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet. The lap came early in this afternoon's session and was better than the track record established last year by Helio Castroneves. Hildebrand's lap is not considered an official record because it did not take place during qualifications or the race.
"We'd certainly rather be quick than not and we felt good about the laps we've been putting in," Hildebrand said at the time. "We were running at a really good time of day. The conditions tailed off a little after we ran our time. We went back out later trying to go even quicker and had a little bit of a moment."
Hildebrand had a bigger moment in tonight's final practice, crashing into the Turn 4 SAFER Barrier with less than 30 minutes remaining in the three-hour session. It was one of five incidents on the day, though no drivers were injured.
"(I) just clipped Will (Power) with the right front wing on his left rear pod and it must have just torn off part of the front wing," Hildebrand explained. "I bent it into Turn 3 and was being cautious with it, but I just picked up huge understeer from not having part of the front wing. Couldn't really avoid getting to the outside wall there, tried to hit the brakes to slow down and it just turned me straight into the inside wall on the front straightaway."
Ed Carpenter, Hildebrand's teammate and boss, had the second-best overall lap of the weekend at 192.404 mph in the No. 20 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet, also logged in today's afternoon practice. The top five spots in the daytime session were filled by Chevy cars, a day after the bowtie brigade held the top four spots.
Tonight's final practice - when cars were fitted into race trim - saw five Honda entries at the top. Ryan Hunter-Reay set the pace in the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport at 189.716 mph. Sebastien Bourdais was second tonight in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda at 189.495 mph. Honda cars claimed the first six positions on the speed chart in Friday's night practice.
"The team did a really good job and we got a lot of really good information," said Bourdais, the four-time Indy car champion who finished in the top 10 of all four open test practices. "Picking a downforce level will be critical when we come back (for the race). It's going to be a ton hotter than it is now. We're just going have to think long and hard about it and see what we come up with. It's definitely not representative now, especially in the night session, of what we're going to be facing in April. Hopefully, we have what we need."
In addition to Hildebrand, today's on-track incidents involved Alexander Rossi, Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato, Josef Newgarden and Bourdais.
Less than five minutes into the afternoon session, Rossi - last year's Indianapolis 500 winner and Sunoco Rookie of the Year for both that historic race and the entire Verizon IndyCar Series season - spun in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian and backed into the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier.
"I'm not completely sure what happened because the car felt fine - it just got loose and snapped," Rossi said. "The car was good going into Turn 1, I went down to the bottom and the back end came out. The test has been productive overall, so this is a pretty big setback. This was my first real contact with the wall - better here than in qualifying or the race - and it won't stop me from pushing hard."
Thirty minutes into the evening session, Rahal had a similar spin and impact in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda.
"The thing was building understeer up until that point and, once I got close to (Newgarden), the rear just went," Rahal said. "It's unfortunate, the guys certainly don't need any more work and I obviously didn't want to bring the thing home on the wrecker."
With just more than an hour remaining in the night practice, Sato spun and backed into the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier.
"We were doing a (run) in qualifying trim, and it looks like we just lost the rear on the second lap," Sato said. "We need to investigate it, but it looks like we were too light on downforce."
With 30 minutes left in the night practice, Newgarden's No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet made light contact with Bourdais as they battled into Turn 1. Both cars continued after touching and returned to pit lane.
The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit March 12 (noon ET, ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network). The Phoenix Grand Prix is the fourth race of the season on April 29 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
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