Championship contenders lead Sonoma pre-qualifying practice

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SONOMA, California – The top five drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship hunt snatched up the first five spots in today’s final practice prior to Verizon P1 Award qualifying at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud posted the fastest lap of the 45-minute session on the 12-turn, 2.385-mile Sonoma Raceway circuit – 1 minute, 16.0329 seconds (112.925 mph) – in the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet. While unofficial since it occurred in a practice session, it is more than two tenths of a second quicker than the track record Pagenaud set in qualifying last year.

GOPRO GRAND PRIX OF SONOMA: Practice 3 results; Combined practice results; Qualifying groups

“We’re under the track record from last year and on the (Firestone primary black-sidewall) hard tires,” said Pagenaud, fourth in the standings, 34 points behind leader and teammate Josef Newgarden. Drivers will likely use sets of the softer, faster Firestone red-sidewall alternate tires in qualifying.

“The track is fast and the DXC car has been fast all weekend,” Pagenaud added. “It’s just about putting an entire lap together. I’ve been feeling more and more comfortable, but this afternoon is money time (in qualifying). That’s when we’re really going to have to really lay it down.”

Carlos MunozFour-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was second fastest in the practice, with a lap of 1:16.1454 (112.758 mph) in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda that also is under the track record. Dixon is also second in points, three behind Newgarden.

“We made some sizable changes (from Friday practice), but I think going back on some and trying to get things matched up a little better – and then just piecing a lap together.

“The balance, actually, I was pretty happy with. From the first run, the balance was pretty good and after that you kind of lose traction. That’s something we definitely have to look at for the race. Traction you always try to get here but it’s very tough but it comes at a pretty big expense with understeer. Right now, I think we’ve kind of got a happy medium with the blacks (primary tires). We’ll have to see what the (alternate) reds bring us.”

Will Power was third in practice in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (1:16.1609, 112.735 mph), ahead of Newgarden in the No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (1:16.2973, 112.533 mph) and Helio Castroneves in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet (1:16.4782, 112.267 mph). Power, the 2014 series champion, is fifth in the standings (68 points out of first place) and Castroneves is third in the standings (22 out of first).

Three rounds of knockout qualifying to determine the starting grid for Sunday’s race begin at 6:30 p.m. ET today (airing live on NBCSN). In addition to the Verizon P1 Award, the pole winner also collects what could be a crucial championship point.

“Hopefully we’ll make it to the (Firestone) Fast Six,” said Dixon, who has reached the final round of qualifying each time it has been conducted on road and street courses this season. “I think you’ll see a bit of a split in the Fast Six as far as (drivers using) a (tire set of) used red to a new black.”

The Verizon IndyCar Series championship will be decided in the season finale for the 12th consecutive year on Sunday. Coverage of the 85-lap race on the 12-turn, 2.385-mile permanent road course begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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