By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
AVONDALE, Ariz. – Finally, Indy cars are back on track!
The Verizon IndyCar Series started the 2017 season on Friday with testing at Phoenix International Raceway with some welcomed surprises that put optimism in effect for the year to come.
Some new faces in fresh places, but maybe none more exciting than Josef Newgarden taking to the 1-mile oval in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet. He finished P1 on the scoring pylon in the year’s first test session during the afternoon at 190.129 mph, but with former boss Ed Carpenter just 0.0141 of a second behind it made for a nice moment.
Perhaps even better was Newgarden’s replacement at Ed Carpenter Racing, J.R. Hildebrand, who ended that session fourth overall in what was a Penske-Carpenter trade off for the first four positions.
To be honest, it was quite surprising to see Dale Coyne Racing get a launch off so quick once the session started – Bourdais held down the top spot for a majority of the afternoon with rookie teammate Ed Jones not far behind.
The paddock also got a chance to see something that hasn’t been witnessed in some time – a relaxed and smiling, Marco Andretti – A lot of that to do with a pleasant offseason no doubt, but also with the addition of former driver and two-time Indianapolis 500-winning race strategist Bryan Herta.
“I just think it’s a good change-up,” said Andretti.
“I think one thing about my dad and I is we’re both very loud on the radio, and that’s just always how we operated, and we’re fine operating like that, but sometimes people around us aren’t. Bryan is very good at keeping me focused on the 27. How can we maximize the 27. And then it’s very easy to be, oh, Penske went this fast, or oh — we need to focus on what we can do to go faster because it’s not the elements we can’t control, and I think that’s a good addition to — a good mindset change, anyway, for us.”
All signs point to the good as Andretti, a two-time IndyCar winner, ended the afternoon sixth overall and catapulted to the top of the chart in the evening session at 189.122 mph.
One thing remains true in racing – when the sun goes down, the intensity picks up.
Defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud had a close call with Conor Daly coming off of Turn 2, while 2016 Sunoco Rookie of the Year and defending Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi also had a handful of wheel midway through the session.
Speaking of Rossi – with Herta moving to the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda, it now links Rob Edwards as the 25-year-old Californian’s new race strategist.
With so many teams trying so many of their own agenda’s, none was more noticeable than when Rossi traded seats with teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay – mostly just to get a feel for the other’s car and add feedback.
Just because four-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon is sporting an all-white livery doesn’t mean the pace isn’t there. On the contrary, the 40-time Indy car race winner (fourth all-time) enjoyed a stout evening by putting Chip Ganassi Racing’s newly acquired Honda engine up to fourth at a pace of 187.944 mph and logging the third most laps of the night (87).
Firestone also brought something different to the party, with the traditional short oval compound for the left side tires, and the superspeedway compound for the right side. The end result provided some compelling laps and close moments that puts all the faith into being the right combination for when the series returns to race on April 29.
Overall, it’s great to have IndyCar racing back again in what was a phenomenal first day on track.