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Drivers stocked with Honda engines and aero kits recorded the six fastest laps of the three-hour evening practice, after Chevrolet drivers nailed down the first four spots in the afternoon session.

Tonight it was Marco Andretti, driving the No. 27 hhgregg Honda for Andretti Autosport, who led the 21-car contingent with a lap of 189.122 mph (19.4541 seconds).

He was followed by another legacy name driver, Graham Rahal, whose best lap was 188.642 mph (19.5036 seconds). Rahal, in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, also logged the fastest lap of any driver tonight without benefit of a tow from a car in front, at 188.098.

“It’s always encouraging (to see your name at the top),” Andretti said. “It’s still early but it’s a good start. What I like about it is, you obviously want to be P1, but today we really focused on the car, the car, the car. We just focused on doing our jobs and maximizing whatever we can. And we ended up all right. I have a hunch that the opposition is turned down, but you might as well be there if you can be.”

The contrast in manufacturer showings between the two practices heightens anticipation for tighter competition between the two in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Chevy collected its fifth straight manufacturers’ championship last year, winning 14 of 16 races and 13 of 16 pole positions.

“I think we’re pleased with the performance today,” said Rahal, Honda’s highest placer in points last season in fifth. “Obviously, we have to take into account that it’s a test, but we worked through a lot of stuff. I don’t think we were necessarily looking for speed to be honest with you, so I was a little bit surprised when we went out right away and did that lap time. We actually backed it up again completely on our own at the end of the session.”

Following Andretti and Rahal on the night session speed chart were: Takuma Sato in the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda (188.088), defending Phoenix Grand Prix race winner Scott Dixon in the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (187.944), Sebastien Bourdais in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda (187.702) and Charlie Kimball in the No. 83 Tresiba Honda (187.488).

JR Hildebrand, in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing entry, was the fastest Chevrolet in the second practice at 187.028, backing up his fourth-place showing in the first session (188.543).

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, in the No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet, set the top lap in the afternoon practice – 190.129 mph – that held up as the best circuit of the day.

“I think we had a pretty good start to today,” said Newgarden, who finished a career-best fourth in the 2016 championship behind the Penske trio who are now his teammates – Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves. “The car was really great off the truck, so we didn't have to do too much. We just got into our program and had a pretty easy start.”

Saturday's final day of the test includes two more sessions, from 3-6 and 8-11 p.m. ET.

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The accolades are endless for Helio Castroneves, but there is one that continues to elude him – the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Entering his 20th season of Indy car racing, the 41-year-old Brazilian continues to be a model of consistency with five consecutive seasons of finishing in the top five in the overall standings (fourth in 2012, second in ’13, second in ’14, fifth in ’15 and third in ’16). However, the toughest test has been enduring a winless drought for the past two and a half seasons.

It’s been 44 races since his last win in the first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix doubleheader in June 2014. Ending the streak is something the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner says will go a long way toward earning his first Astor Cup.

“It's been 20 years and we're doing everything we can, and we always end up close,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet. “For sure, win. You've got to make it happen. Last few years we have not been in victory circle and that hurts, for sure, to be at least in contention. So we've got to figure out a way to win, and from there on, just hopefully carry on the momentum for points.

“We have consistency, which is probably the most difficult thing is to keep that consistency. We've just got to find the weakness spot areas and, for sure, the main thing is winning a race and with that, we carry on the rest of the season.”

In 2014, the 29-time Indy car winner watched as Team Penske teammate Will Power captured his first title. In 2016, it was a Penske 1-2-3 in the championship, with Castroneves too distant in the battle at the season finale to contend with eventual champion Simon Pagenaud, who won his first title in just his second year with the team, and runner-up Power.

With the 2017 season looming, Castroneves, a 47-time Indy car pole sitter (ranking fourth all-time), is watching firsthand the emergence of incoming teammate Josef Newgarden, who is set to pilot the No. 2 Chevrolet. Newgarden also comes in after finishing fourth behind the Penske trio last year when he drove for Ed Carpenter Racing.

“We have the top four in the championship,” Castroneves said. “Basically, I don't think you can do better than that, and that's our goal. It's to complete the top four in the same team, and we are looking for the same result that we have this year, except different numbers.

“Hopefully that No. 3 (car) will be in the No. 1 spot.”

History still sits on the doorstep for Castroneves, who is one Indianapolis 500 win away from tying A.J. Foyt and former Penske drivers Rick Mears and Al Unser for the most all-time in the illustrious event’s records. That milestone could be realized May 28 with the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, but the veteran of 327 career Indy car starts (also fourth all-time) and 90 podiums (sixth all-time) knows that window for both another Borg-Warner Trophy and his first-ever Verizon IndyCar Series championship is closing.

“Personally, I know that the clock is ticking,” said Castronves, who has career 5,595 laps led in Indy car competition, fifth in the record books.

“I don't have to prove anything to anybody else, but I want to achieve my goals, and my goal is to win a championship,” he said. “We've just got to put all the pieces together. Last year we had a very good season, we had pole position, we were fast, we were leading races. Roger (Penske) always says you lose more than win races, and I agree.

“There's so many races that we should have won and probably would have put us in the battle for the championship. But the interesting thing is we always have phenomenal teammates that end up getting in the right spot in the right situation.”

Despite the obstacles ahead, Castroneves is attacking the future like a throwback to the days of Foyt and Mario Andretti, both of whom raced well into their 50s.

“I won't think about the clock ticking, I am thinking about opportunity, and that's probably the motivation to come back every year. When I put the helmet on, give it my best, and that's what I'm going to do again.”

The 2017 IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 10-12.

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The newest driver for Team Penske ran the fastest lap this afternoon in the opening session of a two-day Verizon IndyCar Series open test at Phoenix Raceway.

Driving the No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet, Newgarden’s top lap of 190.129 mph (19.3511 seconds) set the pace as the 21 drivers turned 910 laps in the first of four three-hour practices on the 1-mile oval.

Newgarden, who joined the 14-time Indy car champion Penske outfit this year after finishing fourth in the 2016 championship with Ed Carpenter Racing, said the plan was to use this weekend’s test as another opportunity to get better acquainted with his team.

“For us on the 2 car, we’ve got to really work to just understand our Verizon group with everyone that I’m going to be working with,” said Newgarden. “There’s going to be a lot of changes for me, just moving from a different team to a new group.

“We’ve had a couple days on track already and I think this will be a continuation of what we did back in October. We’ve just got to keep trying to gel with each other, figuring out what I need from the car, figuring out how I communicate and how they communicate. That will just get better the more time we have.”

Newgarden’s former boss, Ed Carpenter, was second fastest in the session with a lap of 189.990 mph (19.3652 seconds) in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet. Will Power was third in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevy (188.637 mph) ahead of JR Hildebrand (188.543), who replaced Newgarden this year in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy for ECR.

Alexander Rossi, the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, was the fastest Honda driver and fifth overall in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts entry for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian (187.611).

The open test resumes with a three-hour evening session from 8-11 p.m. ET today, with two more sessions scheduled for Saturday.



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Few IndyCar Series drivers are as intense as Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay, which means a frustrating 2016 has him even more eager to bounce back this season.

The 2012 series champion looks at last year as “a season of missed opportunities” as his team struggled on street courses and he finished 12th in the points, his worst showing since 2009.

Team owner Michael Andretti made a series of offseason moves to bolster the program, including the hiring of Eric Bretzman as technical director. Bretzman won three series titles and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 as Scott Dixon’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Despite the street-course problems, Hunter-Reay and his teammates were strong contenders to win the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil last May. Teammate Alexander Rossi won the race in his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda and teammate Carlos Munoz, who has since signed with AJ Foyt Racing and been replaced by Takuma Sato, finished second in the No. 26 Honda.

Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy 500 winner, led a race-high 52 laps but was collected in a pit-road incident involving another teammate, Townsend Bell, and Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and finished 24th.

Hunter-Reay’s stability with the team was assured with the September announcement that primary sponsor DHL has signed on through 2020. Not that the 36-year-old Floridian needed extra incentive.

“I'm always so motivated no matter what when I get in the race car,” said Hunter-Reay. “That's how I've always been my whole career just because I've always had to get in and prove myself to keep my ride.

“I have a lot of stability now with DHL. Obviously this is a great, great partner. It's great for the series. I have four years left on my deal right now, and that stability within INDYCAR, so big thanks to DHL and Andretti Autosport on that.”

He laments an Indy 500 that got away, which became the story of his “could have, should have” season.

“I knew after halfway through that race that I had a car to win it, it was just a matter of getting to that sprint, to that fight at the end,” Hunter-Reay said. “And then Pocono, again, same situation, 500-mile race, very similar circumstances. Those were two wins I feel like got away.

"If we'd have been there at the shootout at the end, I think we would have had a good shot at either of them.”

He finished third in the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, despite dropping nearly a lap off the pace when an electronics malfunction forced him to make an unscheduled pit stop to recycle the control unit. That was his best race result of the season; he also finished third at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the second race of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.

He’s won 16 races with 35 podiums and six poles in an Indy car career that began in 2003, but last year marked the first season he didn’t win a race since 2009 when he split driving duties with Vision Racing and AJ Foyt Racing.

Hunter-Reay is confident his team won’t be playing catch-up again in the Honda with aero kits frozen for 2017. INDYCAR will introduce a universal aero kit for all competitors in 2018.

“I don't want to make it seem like it's a lame-duck year for us,” he said. “This is something that we can progress on. We know the areas we need to improve in, and we've been focusing on that this offseason. I think we can improve there. There's no reason why we can't and there's no excuse not to, so that's something that we're very focused on and I feel like we have a great opportunity to win four or five races this season, hopefully more.

“But it's something where we're going to have to go out and prove it. Street courses are a big part of this series. I think our superspeedway package has shown it's been strong. One other area that really threw us for a loop last year is we've always been very, very strong at Iowa (Speedway), and it was just completely turned on its head for us last year. So that's a big head scratcher for us, and we have some ideas on where we need to improve there. We'll be testing there, so hopefully we'll have an opportunity to right that.”

His outlook for 2017 is quite simple: Hunter-Reay expects to be the consistent force he was before last season.

“My goal is to really make for stability on the 28 car because we do have four seasons ahead of us (with DHL). That's something that we had the stability side of it, something we had in our most successful years, 2012 through ’14,” he said. “We had the same guys working together.

“Hopefully we can accomplish that, but in this industry, people are always moving around, and you're just trying to keep them in the same spot for as long as possible.”