Marco Andretti
Marco Andretti. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

The fog soon lifted Saturday morning at Sonoma Raceway for Day Two of the Go Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma weekend, featuring Verizon IndyCar Series, Pirelli World Challenge Series and the Formula Car Challenge presented by Goodyear Series. While the two support race groups had cooler grayer conditions, the sun was out for the late morning 45-minute practice for IndyCars.

Marco Andretti/No.27 Snapple Honda was the top IndyCar driver in Practice Three at 1:16.3052/112.522 mph. It was on his fifth of nine laps that he turned his fastest time. It was warm and sunny, blue, mostly cloudless skies, with the ambient temperature at 73 degrees F with almost no breeze.

Second was Juan Pablo Montoya/No.2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, who only ran eight laps. Ryan Hunter-Ready/No.28 DHL Honda was third, with 12 laps.

Juan Pablo Montoya

Ryan Hunter-Reay

Carlos Munoz

Juan Pablo Montoya/No.2 Chevrolet; Ryan Hunter-Reay/No.28 Honda; and Carlos Munoz/No.26 hhgregg Honda. Photos by Pablo Matamoros.

Fourth through sixth were Will Power/No.12 Verizon Team Penske; Carlos Munoz/No.26 hhgregg Honda; and Simon Pagenaud/No.22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet. Top Rookie, Alexander Rossi/No.98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda, finished seventh overall.

Ten cars went faster Saturday morning than the fastest time set Saturday afternoon by Helio Castroneves/No.3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. While nearly all drivers turned double digit laps, but none more than 19. Except for Castroneves, all drivers were faster Saturday than Friday.

The IndyCar session was interrupted by a seven plus minute Red Flag when Josef Newgarden/No.21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka/ECR Chevrolet nose his car into the uphill 2, and then again for James Hinchcliffe/No.5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports two minutes from the end of the finish. The teams were given one more lap after the session went green. Both drivers are unhurt.

Josef Newgarden
Josef Newgarden. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Newgarden was scrubbing off speed when he hit left front into the tires, so the damage didn’t appear to be as serious as it could have been. But there is only a three hour break before qualifying, so his team will have to hustle. Newgarden drew Group One for Qualifying, eighth car of eleven.

Hinch Crash

Hinch crash closeup

Hinch running

Hinchliffe’s accident photos by Pablo Matamoros.

With Hinchcliffe’s accident, the damage appeared to be more serious, as he hit the concrete wall hard exiting the apex of Turn Eleven. The car just seemed to snap, so it’s not known what happened there. The damage was to the left front wing. Suspension damage or injury to the left rear has yet to be assessed, so his crew will also be beavering away during lunch. At least the Mayor of Hinchtown drew Group Two for Qualifying, eighth of eleven cars. That should buy his crew a bit more time.

Penske Menard Pagenaud Interview
Roger Penske, John Menard & Simon Pagenaud

Team Penske announced that Penske driver, Simon Pagenaud/No.22 Chevrolet will be sponsored by Menards for ten races next season, including the 101th running of the Indianapolis 500. This is an expansion of the 2016 sponsorship which originally was to be for three races including the two May Indianapolis races, once of which Pagenaud won (again) – the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course. That evolved to five races for 2016. Roger Penske said “The 2017 partnership is for ten races as Team Penske has other commitments with Hewlett Packard and PPG, but other sponsors will be associates, so we try to tie it together as one unit.”

Penske noted that the (bright yellow) Menards color scheme “certainly will help the other drivers know where Simon is.”

John Menard, who has sponsored many drivers American and foreign, said “This has been a fairy-tale year. It’s more pleasurable and enjoyable to be part of Roger’s team rather than trying to beat him. Winning my first race with Penske and Pagenaud at Indy certainly was great. You can’t make this up. Simon is a legend in his own time.”

It’s been ten years since Menards was in IndyCar, and he’s glad to be back. “I think IndyCar is on an upward trend now, for sure. I think that they are to be commended, the people that are running it right now, because I think they’re doing a great job.”

Menard is owner of 300 Menards home improvement stores in 14 Midwestern states. Menard said “We’re going to try to make a store connection. I don’t know if he’s going to go for the bobblehead idea very much, but we’re working on it. Some pretty fertile brains working on some fun promotions.” Maybe Menards will start carrying kitchen equipment so Pagenaud can do in-store cooking demonstrations.

Simon Pagenaud
Simon Pagenaud

Pagenaud said “The Menards livery is special, has been around for many years, and worn by many famous drivers. That car was always fast I’m honored to be the driver, and getting our first win was important. We hit it off right away – dream relationship.”

When questioned about his choice of a foreign driver rather than an American, Menard said “We sponsored Tony Stewart – he’s almost too American. He’s triple. Gone through a couple, okay? We’ve had other American drivers. Certainly Gary Bettenhausen comes to mind as being on par with Tony. Robby Gordon. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of very talented people in Europe, as there is in Brazil, as there is in America. I think it’s great that the Indy Racing League has a variety of drivers. I think it makes it a much more interesting sport because they do.”

Regarding what number Pagenaud would run, should he win the championship, Menard said “Picking the number one would be great, but seeing it in victory circle is great.”

Penske certainly is pleased with the 2016 racing season in general, celebrating his fiftieth year in racing. In IndyCars he has drivers going for the Championship, and two of his four drivers will finish 1-2, with a third poised to finish third in the standings. Over in NASCAR, he has two cars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship – Joey Logano/No.22 Ford and Brad Keselowski/No.2 Ford.

“This is a special year, no question about it. It’s hard to think that we’re sitting here with the championship really with Team Penske. We’re trying to determine is it Simon or Will. I never realized we’d get in that position. It’s an amazing feat. It just shows you the strength and depth of the team. Helio has a chance to potentially finish third if he has a good run. He looked strong yesterday, at least in the practice session.

“You put these together. 50 years is a number. Last year we didn’t really think about it. All of a sudden we’ve had a lot of notoriety. We appreciate the support of the media during our 50th year.”

As for how he wants this weekend to end, Penske smiled. “Back in my mind I know what should happen with this Championship, but I’m not going to say.”

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