Points leader Newgarden leads opening Sonoma practice

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SONOMA, California – Josef Newgarden wasted no time showing he won’t give up his Verizon IndyCar Series championship bid without a fight.

The Team Penske driver and points leader heading into the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale, led this morning’s opening practice of the race weekend – and came within less than two tenths of a second of the track record in the process.

GOPRO GRAND PRIX OF SONOMA: Practice 1 results

Driving the No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske driver logged a best lap of 1 minute, 16.3950 seconds (112.390 mph) on Sonoma Raceway’s 12-turn, 2.385-mile permanent road course, leading a Team Penske sweep of the top three spots in practice. Newgarden holds a three-point lead over Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon with the 17th and final race of the season on tap Sunday.

“Good first session,” Newgarden said. “I think it’s going to be a long weekend so we’ve got to pace ourselves.

“We’ve had a couple days here with the (series open) test yesterday that everyone had, and we had a day before that last week. We tried to use that to use that to our advantage and I feel like we’ve had a pretty fast car up to this point.

Takuma Sato“We worked on more race stuff yesterday so we’re trying to get back into qual mode today. I feel like the car’s pretty quick, but we’ve just got to maintain that.”

Seven drivers still have a mathematical chance at the championship, with double the normal race points available. Will Power, the 2014 series champion, is among those seven. The driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet was second in practice at 1:16.4322 (112.335 mph).

Simon Pagenaud, the 2016 series champion, was third in practice with a lap of 1:16.5047 (112.228 mph) in the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet. Pagenaud set the track record of 1:16.2530 (112.599 mph) in qualifying a year ago, when he captured the pole position and won the race to clinch his first series crown and $1 million prize.

Dixon, the four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion driving the No. 9 NTT Data Honda, was sixth in the morning session (1:16.6197, 112.060 mph). Other championship contenders are: Alexander Rossi, sixth in points, who was fourth in practice in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda (1:16.5720); Helio Castroneves, third in points, who was eighth in practice in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet (1:16.7025); and Graham Rahal, seventh in points, who was 11th in practice in the No. 15 United Rentals / Soldier Strong Honda (1:16.9072).

A second practice this afternoon airs live on NBCSN at 5 p.m. ET. A third practice streams live at 2 p.m. Saturday on RaceControl.IndyCar.com, ahead of Verizon P1 Award knockout qualifying that airs live on NBCSN at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Sunday’s 85-lap race airs live on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network at 6:30 p.m. It will mark the 12th straight year that the championship is determined at the final race.

Including bonus points for pole position, leading a lap and most laps led, a maximum of 104 points is available this weekend. Newgarden leads Dixon by three points, Castroneves by 22, Pagenaud by 34, Power by 68, Rossi by 84 and Rahal by 94.

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