Team Penske, Rossi win the day in Road America practice sessions

Chris Owens/INDYCAR

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Team Penske and Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian’s Alexander Rossi combined to lead the way on the opening day of the Verizon IndyCar Series race weekend at Road America.

While they weren’t able to lead the opening session, Team Penske made a statement by sweeping the top four positions of Friday’s second IndyCar practice for the KOHLER Grand Prix.

Sporting a new bright orange DeVilbiss livery, Josef Newgarden paced the field in his No. 2 Chevrolet with a time of 1 minute, 42.823 seconds around the 4.014-mile Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin road course. The Tennessean, who claimed his first win for Team Penske earlier this year at Barber Motorsports Park, voiced pleasure with his machine after the run.

“I was happy with today,” Newgarden said. “I thought it got a little loose in the afternoon with the temperature coming up slightly. We were working on that. But pretty smooth run on the reds (Firestone alternate tires), which was nice to see. We’ll try to carry it into tomorrow and see what we’ve got.”

Defending race winner Will Power (1:42.8720), Simon Pagenaud (1:43.1370) and Helio Castroneves (1:43.2227) claimed the next four positions, completing a dominant session for Team Penske that establishes the Chevrolet quartet as the weekend’s early favorite.

“That shows you that the cars are very good for all of us,” Newgarden said. ‘I think we’ve got good, strong cars across the board. You know, we’ll try to carry that into tomorrow. It’s going to be hard to be the best of all of us, even just us four, I think, because we’re all quite close with what we’re doing. We’re learning every session from each other.”

Rossi led the way for Honda and Andretti Autosport, laying down a time of 1:43.329 that topped the morning’s first practice session and helped the Californian maintain a fifth-place result on the combined charts. However,  the 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion suffered two issues in the afternoon session – first bringing out a red flag with a slide off course in Turn 14 that resulted in contact the tire barrier, then later making a trip through the grass in Turns 12 and 13.

“It was a bit of a disjointed session with the off in the beginning, so we were kind of playing catch up after that, but I think the car is good,” Rossi said. “We need to make a couple of little tweaks overnight to get me more comfortable, but I feel good about the pace the car has today.”

James Hinchcliffe, Ed Jones, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay completed the top 10.

For Hunter-Reay, the top-10 performance came as a bounce back from a crash in the opening practice session, when the Floridian’s No. 28 Honda spun in the final corner of the 14-turn road course, slamming into the track’s tire barrier.

Making his surprising official debut in a substitute roll for Mikhail Aleshin as the Russian fought through immigration issues after competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, DMT driver Robert Wickens ended each of the two sessions in 20th for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

“I’m really happy with today,” Wickens said. “Obviously you always want to make as much progress as possible, and you never know if you’ve done enough or if I should achieve more, or whatever the case is. The biggest thing for me is the car is still in one piece and I haven’t made a terminal error yet (laughter). The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has done a fantastic job getting me up to speed and making me comfortable.

“It’s been a strange day because I’m not really sure if I’m doing the next session since I don’t know when Mikhail [Aleshin] is arriving or if he’s arriving. So I’m going to work overnight as if I’m driving tomorrow morning, and if not, then hopefully I can help out the team somehow.”

Wickens, who made his Indy car debut in a ride swap with Hinchcliffe in Feb., could return to the cockpit if Aleshin is unable to make it to Road America over the weekend. However, the Russian tweeted on Friday that he is en-route to the facility.

Making his return to Dale Coyne Racing in the first of a stint that should stretch to the end of the year, ex-Formula 1 show Esteban Gutierrez ended the day 17th on the charts.

“It was a bit of a mixed day,” Gutierrez said. “Obviously driving at Road America is always a pleasure, so I really enjoyed it. We’ve been working a bit with the car. We had a small issue in the first session that cut our session a bit short. In Practice 2 it was a slightly better, but I’m still not 100 percent comfortable with the car on braking, so this is an area that we need to focus on and fix for tomorrow.”

The IndyCar paddock will return to the picturesque road course on Saturday for practice at 12 p.m. ET, followed by Verizon P1 Pole qualifying at 4 p.m. ET.

The 55-lap KOHLER Grand Prix is slated for Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET. Coverage can be found on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Results, via INDYCAR

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