Hinchcliffe turns valuable laps in final practice before Phoenix race

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The usual suspects led the final practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix as the sun set on Phoenix International Raceway, but it may have been the driver who was 12th on the speed chart that had the most important session.

Pole sitter Helio Castroneves posted the best lap in the practice, 19.7495 seconds (186.293 mph), in the No. 3 REV Group Team Penske Chevrolet. Teammate and 2016 championship leader Juan Pablo Montoya was second in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske (19.7526, 186.284 mph).

CLICK HERE: Final practice results; Combined practice results

But it was James Hinchcliffe, whose crash in the morning practice forced him to miss afternoon qualifying while the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda underwent repairs, returned to the track in the waning minutes of the evening practice and put in a total of 18 laps.

While Hinchcliffe’s top lap (20.2038 seconds, 182.104 mph) ranked only mid-pack, the fact that he was able to log track time in race conditions was crucial considering Takuma Sato, who also crashed in morning practice and missed qualifying, wasn’t able to turn laps in the evening because his No. 14 ABC Supply/AJ Foyt Racing Honda was still in the garage.

“It’s going to be hard enough to decipher a race setup from 20 laps of running, so we’ll take a good look at it,” Hinchcliffe said. “Huge credit to the boys. Obviously the other car (Sato) that did exactly what we did, exactly when we did, didn’t make it out so I’ve got to give them a ton of credit (to his crew) for getting us those laps that we did get.”

Hinchcliffe said track conditions have changed dramatically since the February promoter test, forcing all teams to alter their setups. Data gathered by his teammate Mikhail Aleshin will help, Hinchcliffe added, but the battle is still uphill.

“For everybody, it’s crazy how much the track feels that it’s changed since the test,” Hinchcliffe said. “Luckily, Mikhail got out there and did some good laps and got some good running in so we’ll compare with the (No.) 7 guys and see what we can sort of whip together for tomorrow.

“I think we got a direction. The unfortunate thing is it’s the exact opposite of what we were planning on doing coming into the weekend. That’s how different the track feels.”

The race day schedule April 2 calls for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race at 4:25 p.m. ET (streamed live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com) with the 250-lap Verizon IndyCar Series race to follow on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (8:30 p.m. ET).

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