By David Morgan, Associate Editor
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Rinus VeeKay kicked Saturday morning off at Barber Motorsports Park on a high note by leading practice with a lap of one minute, 5.926 seconds to place his No. 21 Chevrolet at the top of the scoring pylon.
“I knew we had potential yesterday. We didn’t know we had potential to be fastest right now,” VeeKay said after improving on his 10th place run in Friday’s lone practice session.
“The reds really give us what we need right now. I think there’s a little bit of time to be found on the blacks, but I’m happy.
“I found like a half-second gain on the reds. We decided to just wait a little bit and we basically just focused on doing a proper new tire run when everyone was on pit lane. We did that well. We got two new tire runs in. One on blacks, one on reds. Being fast is enjoyable.”
The Ed Carpenter Racing driver would be followed by Pato O’Ward, who timed in .087 seconds in arears of his fellow Chevrolet driver, along with Colton Herta, Scott McLaughlin, and Romain Grosjean to round out the top-five fastest drivers.
Defending race and series champion Alex Palou was sixth quick, as his Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Marcus Ericsson and Scott Dixon clocked in seventh and eighth, respectively. Rookie Callum Ilott continued his impressive run in ninth, with Jack Harvey ending the session in 10th place.
After a promising run in Friday’s first practice session, Alexander Rossi put down one of the top-10 fastest laps in Saturday morning’s session before things went awry for the driver of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda.
Rossi’s car began sliding sideways through the left-hand Turn 17 and as he tried to correct the trajectory of his machine, it hooked and sent him skidding off track, with the rear end of his car making hard contact with the barrier.
He would be checked and released from the infield care center afterwards, but his team will be in hustle mode for the remainder of the morning, as qualifying for Sunday’s race is scheduled for 12:00 pm local time, giving them roughly two and a half hours to get their repairs completed.
“It was probably a little bit too long in the life of the new tire and I took too big of a chunk out of it there in Turn 17,” Rossi said. “It was an unfortunate mistake on my part, but as you said, a huge amount of guys, a lot of different colored shirts here. It’s going to be a team effort, but they’ll get it done. My crew chief is very good at these sort of fire drill situations, so all the confidence.
“The 27 NAPA AutoNation Honda was fast though. We’ll be alright. The teammates seem to be okay at the moment, so we’ll see what qualifying brings.
“I think we had a really good test here about a month ago and obviously, we rolled off the truck strong yesterday. The beginning of the session was also good on these tires, so I definitely think we have a car to contend for a win this weekend. It’s a small setback. Fortunately it happened in practice, not in qualifying or the race, so we’ll just move on from it.”
Debris from the impact also struck the No. 06 Honda of Helio Castroneves, cutting down the right-front tire, which forced him to be towed back to the paddock. Castroneves would be able to continue on in practice afterwards, but was assessed a five-minute penalty from IndyCar for stopping on track.
Once the session resumed, the track continued to show its treacherous nature, as a number of drivers also had off-track excursions, including Grosjean. The Frenchman spun off track into the gravel in the museum section of the track, but was able to get his car pointed in the right direction and continued back around to the pits without issue.
Three-time Barber winner Josef Newgarden, rookie Kyle Kirkwood, and Will Power also ran off-track during the session, with Power’s spin into the gravel trap bringing out the red flag with 12 minutes remaining.
Much like Castroneves, Power would be assessed a five-minute penalty for the red flag, but returned to the track after being extricated from the gravel, making a few laps to close out the session.
Qualifying for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is scheduled for 1:00 pm ET Saturday, followed by final practice to close out the day at 5:20 pm ET.