Roger Penske’s team got off to a fast start on a slow day at Indianapolis.
Less than 24 hours after working feverishly to convert three cars from road-course setups to oval setups, the winningest owner in Indianapolis 500 swept the top three spots on the first day of practice Sunday.
Australia’s Will Power finished with a fast lap of 223.057 mph, Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya was second at 222.502 and Brazil’s Helio Castroneves was third at 222.373. Only three other drivers topped 222.
And Penske’s team made it look easy.
“It was important for us to get out there today and get some qualify running in and you have to get your engines out of the old cars, which is what we did,” Penske President Tim Cindric said. “Busy times, but I’m really proud of our guys.”
The month opened with an unprecedented bang.
But to nobody’s surprise, Sunday’s practice was more of a yawner.
Track workers and most teams at the speedway scrambled to make the overnight transition, and it took a toll.
Just two dozen drivers turned laps on the 2.5-mile oval, most finishing with fewer than 40 total laps and some in backup cars. Power’s practice time more than 5 mph slower than last year’s four-lap pole-winning average, and only a smattering of fans came out for opening day, which years ago was considered an unofficial holiday in town.
None of it was a surprise to the insiders.
Penske’s team wasn’t the only one under the microscope.
NASCAR driver Kurt Busch’s team not only had to make changes to Andretti Autosport’s No. 26 Honda, it had to repair the car that in a crash during Saturday’s inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Michael Andretti’s team didn’t even push Busch’s car out of the garage until more than an hour after practice began. But the delay didn’t slow down Busch, who is attempting to become the fourth driver to attempt “the double” — 1,100 miles of racing at Indianapolis and Charlotte on the same day. Both races will be held May 25.
Busch ran only 29 laps Sunday and was right in the middle of the pack, No. 12, after going 220.352.
That’s not where he intends to be in two weeks.
“It was a nice rookie day to go play in traffic,” Busch said. “It’s exciting because every corner is different and you have to remember where each of those moments were from the lap before. Things are moving quickly at 220 and that’s with just a few cars”
BACK IN LINE: Full-time team owner and part-time driver Ed Carpenter was back in the cockpit for the first time in seven months Sunday. Last year’s Indy pole winner finished eighth on the speed chart with a lap of 221.772. Long Beach winner Mike Conway is driving exclusively on the road and street courses for Carpenter’s team this year, while Carpenter is driving the ovals. The 500 is the first race this season to be held on an oval.
PENSKE FIRST: Castroneves, a three-time Indy winner, was the first car on the track, too. It’s the fifth consecutive year a Roger Penske-owner car earned the distinction. But the Brazilian, who is attempting to become the fourth driver with four 500 wins, won’t like the historical significance of that feat. Since 1984, only two drivers — Castroneves in 2010 and Ryan Briscoe in 2012 — who were first on the track earned the pole, only seven produced top-10 finishes and none reached Victory Lane that year.
ROOKIE TEST: Rookie Sage Karam, the 19-year-old rookie, had a solid start at Indianapolis. He passed the final part of his three-phase rookie test and at one point was actually atop the speed charts. The American turned the most laps (77) of any non-Penske owned car and he had fast lap of 217.310. The defending Indy Lights champ is driving a car fielded jointly by Chip Ganassi Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Kingdom Racing.
LEADING CHEVY: Chevrolet dominated the top 10 in practice. The top non-Penske driver, JR Hildebrand, was fourth. He also drives a Chevy. And the only Honda drivers to crack the top 10 were Ryan Hunter-Reay (fifth) and EJ Viso (sixth).
MOTHER’S DAY MAGIC: Team owner Sarah Fisher celebrated Mother’s Day in the flag stand and brought her daughter and mother to the track, too. Fisher was one of the most popular drivers in the series when she drove and is expecting her second child in June. “It’s so neat that IMS recognizes mothers on Mother’s Day. It’s such a long month and there are such a lot of crew guys that are working out here the whole month. They have wives and moms at home. It’s so nice that the track recognizes that Mother’s Day is important.”