The Verizon IndyCar Series got back to work with the first practice of the weekend for Sunday's Milwaukee IndyFest 250, with Josef Newgarden making an early claim on the proceedings with the best time of the day.
The #67 CFH Racing Chevrolet left it late in the 75-minute session to clock in with a lap of 21.5414s (169.626mph) on his penultimate flying lap at the Milwaukee Mile on Saturday afternoon. That's already faster than last year's pole-winning time which was posted by Penske's Will Power with a two-lap average speed of 169.262mph.
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Newgarden finished in the top five in this race 12 months ago, and is seeking to rebound from a disappointing end to the last race at Fontana which saw him taken out by his own team mate and team co-owner Ed Carpenter. The 24-year-old from Tennessee finished the session just 0.0277s faster ahead of Penske's Simon Pagenaud making it a Chevy 1-2 in the final timesheets.
However the ovals continued to be better hunting grounds than street and road courses for the Honda-powered cars too, with Takuma Sato third fastest for AJ Foyt Racing and Graham Rahal in fourth for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Less than two tenths of a second covered the top four, with 14 cars within half a second of Newgarden's benchmark time, and fully 22 of the 24 cars running this weekend still within one second.
Ganassi pair Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon had spent much of the session on top of the time having set their best laps within their first half dozen laps, but both of them were pushed down by a late flurry of flying laps at the end and finished in fifth and sixth and sixth places respectively.
Ryan Hunter-Reay was also quickly on the pace in seventh for Andretti Autosport just ahead of Penske's Helio Castroneves, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsport's James Jakes also on form in ninth place pushing last year's race winner Power down to tenth for the opening session which saw only two brief interruptions for track inspection and general clean-up activities.
Power crashed out at Fontana after contact with Sato and is currently trailing his team mate Juan Pablo Montoya by 46 points in the series standings in his bid to retain his championship title for a second year.
"Milwaukee could not be coming at a better time for the Verizon Chevy team," insisted the Australian. "We need a race to really jumpstart the rest of our season and Milwaukee did that for us last year.
"The win there kind of cemented our spot as the championship frontrunner, even though we still had to take care of business the rest of the year," he explained. "When you have a race like we did last year at Milwaukee, it can't help but give you supreme confidence heading into this year's event.
"I had a great feeling about that race at the start of 2014," Power continued. "It was one that I circled on the calendar - and I feel the same this year.
"It really comes down to qualifying at Milwaukee because passing can be difficult there. If we can win another Verizon P1 Pole Award, I'm confident we can keep our Verizon Chevy at the front of the field and contend for another Milwaukee win. If we do, hopefully we keep Montoya and Kanaan away from the cream puffs [a quirky prize for the three drivers on the podium at Milwaukee] - don't need them stuffed in my ears again!"
Montoya was only 15th fastest in the day's practice run, but he finished runner-up to Power in last year's race and has a good feeling about doing at least as well if not one better in 2015.
"I have never been more upset with a second-place finish than I was last year at Milwaukee," he admitted. "We had such a good car that it was a shame that we couldn't win the race, but Will was just that dominant that day.
"If I have a Verizon Chevrolet that is even close to how good that car was [this year], I will feel really good about our chances this weekend," he said. "I enjoy racing at Milwaukee a lot. It's a different feel than anywhere else we go because it's a fairgrounds track. It's just a cool place with a lot of history.
"I'm glad I have been able to win there at least once in my career," he added, referring to his victory at the one-mile circuit in 2000 before he left to compete in F1 and subsequently NASCAR before his return to US open wheel racing at the start of 2014.
"Unfortunately, last year there wasn't a lot of passing and, as a result, Will was able to lead so many laps. I'm very anxious to see what the new aero package and downforce levels do to the racing when we get back," he said.
"The points lead can vanish in one week. You have one bad race, all the work for the year goes out of the window,” Montoya pointed out, aware of how tenuous his lead in the championship is with five races remaining and six drivers still within 100 points of each other. Another factor in the calculations is the double points on offer for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the 2015 season finale.
“I've had two wins, won the Indy 500. I've led the points all year. If I can close the year, I think it would be great," Montoya said. "I think the most important thing is make sure we can keep the championship at Penske."
Power, Montoya and the rest of the drivers will have one further 45 minute practice session on Sunday morning at 9.15am local time (3.15pm BST) on a day that will also see both qualifying and the race itself being held in a compressed schedule.
Qualifying - which will take the usual form for ovals of single-car time trials posting a two-lap average time, rather than the group elimination process used by the series for street and road courses - is set to get underway at 12.30pm (6.30pm BST).
The ABC Supply Co. Inc. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest itself will get the green flag shortly after 4.30pm (10.30pm BST). The two-hour race will consist of 250 laps, or 253.75 miles.
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