In the first practice session of the weekend, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Helio Castroneves all put in some strong lap times in a 1-2-3-4 finish.
Pagenaud was fastest with a lap time of 1:08.110, threatening to break into the 1:07’s. Newgarden, who is a former winner at Birmingham, posted a 1:08.182, just seven hundredths of a second behind teammate Pagenaud. Castroneves looked set to take third with a 1:08.411 but at the last second before the opening session ended, Power took away his spot to record a 1:08.218, two tenths faster than Castroneves’ lap time. All four Penske drivers were the only Chevrolet cars to finish in the top 10.
The fastest Honda was Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, setting a lap time of 1:08.456, finishing behind the Penske four in fifth ahead of teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay who settled for sixth. Six Hondas finished inside the top 10, despite Penske’s dominance. Graham Rahal, who was battling hard for the win with Pagenaud at last year’s event, ended up finishing seventh in practice, ahead of Long Beach winner James Hinchcliffe, who settled for eighth place. Sebastian Bourdais comfortably finished in ninth, whilst Scott Dixon rounded out the top 10.
There were two incidents early in the opening session, beginning with Mikhail Aleshin who lost control of his car, spinning into the sand in Turn 2. Fortunately, there was no damage reported for the #7 Schmidt Peterson Honda. Secondly, Bourdais drove off course in Turn 1 and hit one of the signs heading into Turn 2. The #18 Dale Coyne Honda also showed no sign of damage.
In second practice, Marco Andretti spoiled the Penske party, taking top spot in the session and bringing some pride back to the Honda faithful.
Penske were once again dominant in second practice but Andretti was able to find an answer to topple the team’s times. Andretti recorded a lap time of 1:07.713 on his soft red tyres, finishing ahead of Penske trio Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves. Power set a 1:07.745 lap time, just three hundredths of a second slower than Andretti whilst his teammate, Pagenaud, placed in third with a 1:07.830 lap time, a tenth slower than both Power and Andretti. Castroneves was two tenths slower than Andretti with a lap time of 1:07.904, finishing ahead of Scott Dixon in fifth with a 1:07.911.
Charlie Kimball struggled in first practice to get a decent lap but in the second session, he was able to improve his performance to earn a respectable sixth place, coming ahead of Mikhail Aleshin who settled for seventh.
Josef Newgarden was not able to join his Penske teammates in putting his car in the top 5 this time around but he was still fast enough to sit comfortably in eighth position ahead of Sebastian Bourdais who put himself in ninth place for the second session in a row. Ryan Hunter-Reay struggled a little bit in second practice but he still managed to round out the top 10.
There were three more incidents in this session. Max Chilton was the first driver to bring out the red flag for spinning out and stalling his car in Turn 14 but did dodge a bullet by not sustaining any damage. Ed Jones also brought out the red flag after stalling his car at the second hairpin on the track but he was fortunate enough to get his car re-fired up.
The final incident of the day involved Hunter-Reay. He overdrove in Turn 2, locked up the tyres and sent his car straight into the sand. The Andretti Autosport driver managed to recover without any significant damage.
Will Penske be able to continue their dominance in qualifying? Or can Marco Andretti find a way to upset the apple cart? Stay tuned to find out!