Helio Castroneves
Helio Castroneves. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

The pace picked up Friday afternoon at Sonoma Raceway for the second practice session of the Verizon IndyCar Series. While no one bested the existing qualifying track record of 1:16.2597/112.589 mph set last summer by contender Will Power/No.12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Eleven of the 22 drivers went faster than the top lap set in the morning by Helio Castroneves/No.3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet.

Castroneves continued to dominate the session with a lap of 1:16.6678, turning ten laps compared to the four he ran in the morning. Power and points leader, Simon Pagenaud/No.22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet, were second and third. Alexander Rossi/No.98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda continued to be the top Rookie, hovering up in fourth position before finishing fifth, behind Ryan Hunter-Reay/No.28 DHL Honda.

Will Power

Simon Pagenaud

Alexander Rossi

Left to Right: Will Power/No.12; Simon Pagenaud/No.22; Alexander Rossi/No.98. All photos by Pablo Matamoros.

The contenders got down to business. Power admitted they hadn’t really tried that hard in the morning session. Power had predicted after Practice One that “I think this next session is going to be telling. I think everyone is going to run a lot because around the time we’re qualifying the temperatures are going to be the same and hopefully the wind is. We’ll get more of an idea then.” He said “We were trying to save some tires. It didn’t make much sense to run.”

Pagenaud agreed. “Like Will, for us, we’re just saving tires, waiting for the conditions to be more similar to what’s going to happen over the weekend. We know the temperatures are going to rise.”

Only three drivers went faster in the morning session – Graham Rahal/No.15 Steak n’ Shake Honda in P16; Mikhail Aleshin/No.7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Honda in P17; and Takuma Sato/No.14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Honda in P19.

Practice Two was less benign. With 11 minutes to go in the 75-minute session, the Red Flag flew. Rookie Conor Daly/No.18 laid down a smoke screen guaranteed to kill mosquitoes for a square mile. He courteously pulled out of the line coming out of the Carousel going down the drag strip to Turn Seven, pulling off next to the concrete wall. Daly was able to exit safely while the Holmatro Safety Crew came to the rescue. Down time was 6.34 minutes.

Alexander Rossi
Alexander Rossi

A second Red Flag, with two minutes to go, brought out the Checkered Flag. Rossi pulled off to the side just past the Starter Stand on the front straight. His P5 time held. Afterwards, Rossi admitted he didn’t yet know the cause. It wasn’t running out of fuel. “I’ve done that enough.”

After the session, Castroneves met the media. “for the 50th anniversary of Team Penske, having Roger get the championship, having the championship on the 50th anniversary is just a perfect situation for Roger. We’re extremely happy, especially after last year, being so close and losing on the last one. Great recovery from the team.”

When asked about his role in the race, he said “Well, the good news is the team already clinched the championship. In my role, it’s just to cheer, Yes, good job.

Helio Castroneves

I feel I did contribute a little bit with that. As far as who is going to win, if it’s Will or Simon, hmm, the best man wins. It’s up to them. For us it’s great because whatever happens now, we don’t need to be involved in the situation, you know, trying to help out each other. At this point it’s just between them.

Whoever be nicer to me, I might be able to help out. It’s just the way it works, you know what I mean?

As far as my position, I actually talked to my two other drivers to see if they can sort it out, whatever happens, but if it can help out so we can finish 1-2-3 in the championship. That would be a phenomenal year, even that I don’t have the chance to win the championship.”

Simon Pagenaud
Simon Pagenaud

While some have felt the two Team Penske teammates might feel awkward competing with each other, Pagenaud did not. “No, I don’t feel awkward. I want to be the one winning for sure, and Will does, too It’s great for Team Penske to win, but I do want to get this title. couldn’t be happier to be where we’re at right now. Like I said, I’m going to embrace the weekend and enjoy it.”

Pagenaud isn’t just a pretty face or a foodie cum chef. He’s also a techie, taking the time to show a veteran journalist how to work his smart phone recorder.

Firestone Tires is celebrating the 2016 Championship in a unique fashion. Philanthropy. Four charities will each receive $5K. “Championship weekend is a perfect time to reflect upon and celebrate everything that has happened over the past season. The motorsports community is one big family and it’s a privilege to be a part of it. We wanted to take the opportunity afforded by this weekend to honor those individuals who embodied the spirit of racing and their legacies that live on through all of the great work these organizations do to help others.”

Lisa Boggs, director of Bridgestone America Motorsports announced the charities are: The Wilson Children’s Fund; The Indy Family Foundation; The Dan Wheldon Foundation and Alzheimer’s Association; and The USAC Benevolent Fund in memory of Bryan Clauson,