Hildebrand blazes to top of Phoenix open test speed chart

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – JR Hildebrand is making sure the world knows he’s back fulltime in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka/Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet found the fastest way around Phoenix Raceway in this afternoon’s open test practice, recording the top lap of the three-hour session at 193.234 mph (19.0401 seconds). It was quicker than the official track record for the 1.022-mile oval posted last year by Helio Castroneves (192.631), but lap records may only be set in qualifications or races.

“I like short-oval stuff, they’re really challenging in their own way,” said Hildebrand, who had never driven at Phoenix with the current aero kit configuration but did fill in for an injured Josef Newgarden at Iowa Speedway for a 2016 test. “It was fortunate from my perspective to be able to run the car a little bit at Iowa last year. It gave me a little more basic knowledge of what the aero kit’s like and what you’re looking for with the current tire.”

PHOENIX OPEN TEST RESULTS: Practice 3; Combined results

Hildebrand led five Chevrolet drivers atop the session’s speed chart, with his teammate and boss Ed Carpenter second in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka/ECR Chevy at 192.404 mph. The Team Penske trio of Newgarden (No. 2 Verizon Chevy, 191.932), Castroneves (No. 3 Hitachi Chevy, 191.668) and Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Chevy, 191.637) rounding out the bowtie manufacturer’s top five.

The Indy Lights champion in 2009, Hildebrand drove two full Verizon IndyCar Series seasons in 2010-11 before going to part-time status the past four years. He drove a total of five races the last three seasons for Carpenter’s team – three times in the Indianapolis 500 and twice in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. The 29-year-old takes over for the whole season in the No. 21 Chevy for Newgarden, who joined Penske this year.

A total of 795 laps were completed in the session. The top Honda-powered driver was Mikhail Aleshin in the No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry, with a lap of 191.079 mph.

In addition to clocking the fastest overall lap of the weekend to date, Hildebrand also this afternoon recorded the best lap without advantage of an aerodynamic tow from a car in front of him – 192.844 mph – that would also be a track record if it had occurred in qualifying or the race.

“Our no-tow lap, I actually pinched the exit in Turn 4 a little or it could’ve been quicker than what it was,” Hildebrand admitted. “We’d certainly rather be quick than not and we felt good about the laps we’ve been putting in.

“We were running at a really good time of day. The conditions tailed off a little after we ran our time. We went back out later trying to go even quicker and had a little bit of a moment.”

Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner and Sunoco Rookie of the Year for the entire season, was involved in the lone incident of the session. Less than five minutes after the practice started, Rossi lost control of his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda and spun into the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier. The car made hard contact, but Rossi was uninjured.

Rossi was on just his second full lap of the day when the mishap occurred. It’s the first significant wall contact that the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion has had on an oval since joining the series last year.

“I’m not completely sure what happened because the car felt fine – it just got loose and snapped,” said Rossi, driver for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian. “The car was good going into Turn 1, I went down to the bottom and the back end came out. The test has been productive overall, so this is a pretty big setback.

“The car has been great this weekend and I’m really happy with the progress we’ve made ahead of this incident. This was my first real contact with the wall – better here than in qualifying or the race – and it won’t stop me from pushing hard.”

The final three-hour practice of the two-day test is scheduled for 8-11 p.m. ET today, with a live video stream and timing and scoring available at racecontrol.indycar.com.

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