BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Will Power and Helio Castroneves still run awfully fast at Barber Motorsports Park, though some changes were evident at Tuesday’s preseason testing session.
The Penske Racing teammates posted the two fastest laps in testing at a track where they’ve combined to win the first three IndyCar races.
“I’ve never felt so much grip in this car,” said Power, who has won the last two years on the 2.3-mile track. “Good to have Team Penske one and two. It’s only testing. It’s only the first day of testing. But it shows we have worked hard over the winter. I think as a team we are very determined to check a couple of boxes this year. Obviously the Indy 500 and the championship are absolutely at the top of the list. We’ve let it go too many times now. So, a good start.”
There were some new developments on the track even with familiar faces at the top with the season opener at St. Petersburg set for March 24. Four drivers are with new teams, and former NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger is back in open-wheel racing with the Penske team.
Power’s fast lap of 1:07.8625 was more than 2.6 seconds faster than the run that secured the pole for Castroneves a year ago. Castroneves was next up with 1:07.9388, followed by James Hinchcliffe at 1:07.9869.
In all, 25 drivers were quicker than the official track record and eight different teams were represented in the top 10. Nineteen of the 26 drivers were within 1 second of the leader in the first extended test session since last September’s season finale.
“When the offseason is so long, our speed bottles up,” joked Hinchcliffe.
Power, the series runner-up last year, says the faster times were a product of engine work and cooler weather. He called it “just a very fast situation.”
“It’s important to test here to race here. It’s not really relevant anywhere else because it’s a pretty unique track,” he said. “We’ll get as much as we can out of testing here and when we go to St. Pete it’s very different. Very different track, very bumpy, and different tires. We’ve got to prepare for that too. We expect to be fighting for the first few races for sure.”
Allmendinger left the track a little frustrated with the challenges of readjusting to IndyCar after making the move to stock car racing in 2006.
NASCAR suspended Allmendinger in July after he failed a random drug test, but he has been rehired by Roger Penske at least for the Indianapolis 500 and the April 7 Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do,” Allmendinger said. “Definitely a lot of work to do.”
Other familiar faces are just racing for different teams.
Simona de Silvestro has changed IndyCar teams for the first time, joining Tony Kanaan with KV Racing Technology to drive the No. 78 Chevrolet. Graham Rahal is driving the No. 15 Honda for his father, Bobby, with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
E.J. Viso joined Andretti Autosport for the No. 5 Chevy.
“I really like the team,” Viso said. “I’m very excited about it. I think they are a team that they not only think of the technical part but they really think about every single aspect around racing and they take it very seriously. This is very refreshing for me.”
Mike Conway will run at Long Beach — where he scored his only IndyCar victory two years ago — for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Conway (1:08.1584) had the fourth-fastest lap at Barber in just his first time in the car since last year. He’ll turn the car over Wednesday to James Jakes.
“Today was about getting comfortable in a car, working with the guys and seeing how they work and getting myself dialed in for Long Beach,” Conway said. “I think we got through a lot of stuff, and hopefully helped the guys out for tomorrow. James will be in the car and hopefully he’ll like some of the things we got through today and be quick out of the box.”
The day wasn’t so smooth for Graham Rahal in the other RLL entry. He was off the pace and unsure why.
“I’m kind of baffled right now,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s me, but the car definitely has a lot of oversteer, understeer characteristics that are making driving it extremely challenging. But even with that I feel like we should be able to put a lap together. But any time I put on sticker tires and push hard, I just go slower so I’m a little bit confused as to why.”