Hunter-Reay leads St. Pete practice

Perhaps taking advantage of racing in their home state, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Spencer Pigot set the pace in practice as the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opened at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Hunter-Reay was fastest overall in Friday’s two practices, turning a lap of 1 minute, 0.8969 of a second (106.409 mph) on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary circuit that encompasses city streets and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport. His standard-setting lap in the No. 28 DHL Honda came in the afternoon session after Hunter-Reay ran second best in the morning practice.

“We definitely made some changes between the sessions,” said Hunter-Reay, who lives in Fort Lauderdale. “At first, I thought it was a bit of a handful – it still is. We’re right on the edge of tipping it over, I think, but it was a good outing. 

“The car is pretty good. It’s a handful at the moment, I’d like it to be a little more polite in a few areas. We’ll keep working on it….It’s a good step but it’s only Day 1.”

Pigot also ran his best lap in the afternoon practice, when teams took advantage of the set of softer red-sidewall Firestone alternate tires available to them for first-day practice.  Driving the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, Pigot was less than a tenth of a second behind Hunter-Reay, at 1:00.9812 (106.262 mph).

“It was a good day for us in the Autogeek Chevy,” said Pigot, who hails from Orlando. “I was really happy with the way the car felt this afternoon, on reds (Firestone alternate tires) in particular, so it’s nice to have that knowledge going into qualifying. We’ll go back tonight and see where we can still improve, but so far we are happy with all of the progress we’ve made.

“We had a really strong second session there. It’s obviously extremely tight still, so we still have work to do, try to find if we can go quicker and if we can try and stay up at the pointy end of the grid.”

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg serves as the NTT IndyCar Series season opener for the ninth straight season, this year kicking off a 17-race schedule that features the most diverse array of tracks including street circuits like St. Petersburg, permanent road courses, short ovals and superspeedways. 

Hunter-Reay, one of two active Indy car drivers who competed in the first St. Petersburg race in 2003, has never won the event in 12 previous tries. He has finished second on two occasions and third twice, appreciating the chance to shine in his home race.

“I think you ask anybody, they absolutely love it here,” Hunter-Reay said of St. Pete. “It’s just a fantastic event, fantastic venue. The location, everything, and then, yeah, it’s my home race, Spencer’s as well. 

“It always feels important to do well here, not only because of that, but it’s the start of the season. It kicks off the momentum that you’re going to roll into the next string of races before we get to Indy. It’s a fantastic layout, a lot of fun from behind the wheel, and this city, this town, the people here really support us. Yeah, it’s definitely a great event, I think one of the best on the schedule.”

A total of 24 cars are entered this weekend. Scott Dixon, the reigning and five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion, wound up 13th on the overall timesheet with a lap of 1:01.4284 (105.489 mph) in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Sebastien Bourdais, the two-time defending race winner, was 18th in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan, at 1:01.5635 (105.257 mph).

The field features six Indianapolis 500 winners and four rookies. Colton Herta was quickest of the newcomers and fourth overall with a lap of 1:01.0776 (106.095 mph) in the No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda.

A third practice is scheduled for 10:25 a.m. ET Saturday and streams live on NBC Sports Gold’s INDYCAR Pass. NTT P1 Award qualifying to determine the pole position starts at 2:30 p.m. and airs live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Pass. Coverage of Sunday’s 110-lap race begins at 12:30 p.m. on NBCSN and 1 p.m. on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

‘What They’re Saying’ from Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Day 1

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was an OK day. Very busy, but good to be back on track. I think the Hitachi car has a lot of promise. We are working really hard with everyone, including Chevrolet, to make the most of this weekend. We need to find a little more speed, but the top 10 is good for both of today’s sessions, but we need to be a little further up. We will get to work on that tonight.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Pretty good day here at the track in St. Pete. It’s good to be back in the race car and most importantly it’s good to be working with this team again. I think we made some gains today. We figured out some new things for the car, which might be helpful for the future and for this weekend, too. We’re looking forward to it. It’s good to be back driving the car on a street course – it’s an awesome track – and I’m looking forward to qualifying tomorrow.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “The car has been OK to start. We just had a lot of traffic out there with the PNC Bank car. Traffic was just horrendous out there for one reason or another. We have some balance things we can work on to improve, but it’s definitely a top-three car as of right now.”

FELIX ROSENQVIST (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I think it was a really good first day in the NTT DATA car. The car felt good from the start. Everything is working smoothly. We’re just trying to get into the flow of it altogether. I was on the Firestone alternate tires this afternoon for the first time, and I learned a lot after screwing up a few laps. I think there is a lot more in the car and I’m excited for tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “We got some work to do. We need to keep improving the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. It doesn’t feel that bad, but the field is so tight right now, you just can’t leave anything on the table this weekend. We just got to keep at it and see what we can find overnight.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It was a difficult day for us, but we knew it could be good or bad. Matheus (Leist) had started with the car that we had known, and we went a completely different direction to try to find something, and obviously, it didn’t work. We fought all day with some of the setup changes; it’s been a characteristic, but I can’t get into details. The funny part was that actually, A.J. (Foyt) helped with this one, which was great. I think that’s just something when we’re a small team like this you’ve got to try it and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s too bad it didn’t work, but we still have tomorrow.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 United Rentals Honda): “It was awesome to be back in the United Rentals Honda today in St. Pete. The first session went really well, we finished eighth and were very competitive. In the second session, we ran the red Firestone (alternate) tires very early. We decided as a team that I would do that this race and Takuma (Sato) would do it at the next one to try to help the team get better. Overall, it was a solid day. We will do some homework overnight and hopefully, be faster tomorrow.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 SealMaster Honda): “It was a tough, challenging day for the SealMaster Dale Coyne Vasser Sullivan team. We tried something different today that we worked on at Sebring.  Different concepts, looking for solutions for the street course setup. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out the way we hoped. The car isn’t terrible, but it just doesn’t get us where we need to be. So, we’ll just hit the reset button and go back to something we are more familiar with. Hopefully, that will get us back in the top-10 tomorrow.”

SANTINO FERRUCCI (No. 19 David Yurman Honda): “Our No. 19 David Yurman, Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda was a little loose today. We were just struggling to find some front grip, but we were also trying something a little different coming into practice today. We learned a lot and I’m looking forward to going into tomorrow’s practice and qualifying to see what we can do after we look at all the data and make some changes for tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Scuderia Corsa Chevrolet): “We had some issues with brakes in the first session, so that made things a bit more difficult, but we sorted that out before this afternoon. We made good progress in the second session but ran quite a bit different to my teammate. It was good to do that with the two cars, so we can figure out a better package. Spencer (Pigot) did a good job; we can follow more his direction tomorrow and make another jump going into qualifying.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet): “It was a good day for us in the Autogeek Chevy. I was really happy with the way the car felt this afternoon, on reds (Firestone alternate tires) in particular, so it’s nice to have that knowledge going into qualifying. We’ll go back tonight and see where we can still improve, but so far we are happy with all of the progress we’ve made.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s been a good day. I’m pretty confident with the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet. It feels good and it’s competitive. It’s just really competitive at the moment in the series. On the red tires (Firestone alternates), we understand some things we need to do for tomorrow in qualifying. It was actually a good practice session because we realized what we had wasn’t good for qualifying, so I think tomorrow we will have a better understanding of what we need, and we will go forward.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Carlin Chevrolet): “It was a good first day, honestly, but we have a lot more to accomplish here at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend. It’s good to come back with Carlin in their second year because we’re able to learn not only from what we accomplished here last year but what we were able to accomplish throughout the entire 2018 season. We’re just so much further ahead than we were coming into this race last year and it showed today with our results. Coming out of the second practice with a top-10 finish is very promising, especially heading into tomorrow when it really counts with qualifying. I feel good about where the No. 23 Tresiba Carlin Chevrolet ended the day today and I’m thrilled with how we kicked off our first day of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda): “Overall, I’m really happy with today. The last session was not what we wanted at all – we took a big gamble on some changes and it was the wrong way. Then I got a little too greedy and got into the wall a little bit. We’re ready for tomorrow, though. We have the speed in the Gainbridge car to run in the top six, which has given me a lot of confidence. We just have to put it all together.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “It was a productive Friday. I think the team, in general, is pretty quick, obviously. It’s amazing how close it is. It’s going to take a lot of work tomorrow morning to ensure that we are in the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow afternoon. A couple hundredths (of a second) make a huge difference in terms of the (starting) position that you are in, so I think we have a good baseline. We will work to improve it some more this evening.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We definitely made some changes between the sessions and at first I thought it was a bit of a handful and it still is. We are right on the edge of tipping it over. It was a good outing. The Firestone reds (alternate tires) came in real quickly, as the Firestone reds usually do. The car was pretty good. It is a handful at the moment, I’d like it to be a little bit more polite in a few areas. We will put our heads together as a team and work with Honda to get this No. 28 DHL up front, but it is a good first step.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Panasonic / Seeman Holtz Honda): “I’m happy with our progress today. I think it was a productive day. We continued to work on the car through Practice 1 and 2 and continued to show solid performance on the black tire. When we ran the red Firestone (alternate) tires, it was a little out of balance, so I wasn’t able to improve the lap time. Nevertheless, the important thing today was to gather data. We were mainly working on the rear end and Graham (Rahal) was working on the front end. We split the program, so hopefully, we can both be better for tomorrow. I think it was a very good day.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet): “It was a bit of a rollercoaster of a day. We weren’t where we wanted to be this morning, and then this afternoon we made some big jumps forward and finished the day where we knew we should’ve been all day. It was nice to finish out the day of a race weekend in the top five, and hopefully, we can duplicate that same result 24 hours from now when it really counts in qualifying. The good thing for us is that the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet works on reds (Firestone alternate tires), which is where you need it to be to qualify well. It was obvious after today that everyone did a great job at Carlin over the winter, but we still have a long way to go this weekend.”

JACK HARVEY (No. 60 AutoNation/Sirius XM MSR w/ Arrow SPM Honda): “We definitely are doing better than last year, although the timing sheet doesn’t show it. We have a clear direction path for tomorrow and will have some other things to try out. I think what James (Hinchcliffe) did was very achievable for us. My pace on the blacks (Firestone primary tires) was really good. We had a much better day than what the time sheets showed. A lot of it is comparing what our teammates did and us all trying different things that we had spoken about. Right now, we are trying to shift the whole balance in one direction, which I’m hoping that James went in that direction, and if he did, it showed well. The potential for what we have is very good so we will see what we can achieve in qualifying.”

COLTON HERTA (No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda): “Today ended pretty well after we had a bit of a rocky start in the first practice where we couldn’t show our true pace. I was able to then give it all I had, and we could show our true pace in the second practice. I’m very happy with the Harding Steinbrenner Racing guys and my engineers, Nathan O’Rourke and Andy Listes, made some great changes in between sessions. We worked very cleanly and effectively, so we were able to get a lot of productive track time.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “The U.S. Concrete car feels good – and we think we may even have a little bit more in it, so we just have to execute tomorrow. The car feels a little bit like Detroit, if we can just execute in qualifying, we can get it. So that’s going to be our goal, but I think we’re close.”

Of note

A pair of driver announcements were made heading into the race weekend. On Thursday, Carlin announced that 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion Patricio O’Ward will drive in 13 NTT IndyCar Series races for the team this season. O’Ward will be the team’s second driver for 12 races and be in a third Carlin entry at the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. 

Dale Coyne Racing announced on Friday that James Davison will drive for the team in the Indianapolis 500 in a partnership with Jonathan Byrd’s Racing, Hollinger MotorSport and Belardi Auto Racing. Davison will drive the No. 33 Honda and becomes the 33rd official entry for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

In Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires action, Braden Eves of Cape Motorsports led flag to flag to win the first race of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship doubleheader this weekend. In the Indy Pro 2000 Championship presented by Cooper Tires, Parker Thompson of Abel Motorsports won from the pole in the first of that series’ two races.

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