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The Journal Gazette

Friday, April 05, 2013 8:13 pm

Castroneves leads 1st day of practice at Barber

By JENNA FRYERAP Auto Racing Writer

Helio Castroneves paced the first day of IndyCar practice at Barber Motorsports Park, setting the stage for what could be more domination by Penske Racing.

Castroneves ran a 1:08.5540 around the 17-turn, 2.38-mile permanent road course on Friday in his Penske Chevrolet. Castroneves won the inaugural race at Barber in 2010, and teammate Will Power is the two-time defending champion.

"It's just the first day," Castroneves cautioned. "I feel good. I feel like we have a great car, a great team. We've showed that in the last years."

Alex Tagliani was second fastest in his Bryan Herta Autosport Honda, followed by rookie Tristan Vautier of Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports. Vautier was fastest in Friday's first session despite going off course.

Simon Pagenaud was fourth to give Schmidt two cars in the top five, and put three Honda's in the top five after the manufacturer was shut out by Chevrolet in the season-opener at St. Petersburg.

"Honda did a fantastic job," Tagliani said. "I know they were under a lot of pressure in St. Pete. A lot of people were talking about them maybe being behind and they think they made a bit of a gain here, so we're pleased so far."

Power was fifth - uncharacteristically low on the speed chart.

"We definitely have a bit of work to do," he said. "We're just off the pace a bit. We were running top-five all day, but we really had to push to get there. We'll get together and work to figure out how to improve for qualifying."

AJ Allmendinger, who will make his IndyCar debut Sunday, was eighth in the third Penske entry. He tested at Barber last month, but the warmer track conditions Friday made for a much different feel in the car, and, he's still trying to get a good feel for an Indy car after being in NASCAR and away from open-wheel for the last six seasons.

But he's confident he'll have a good car Sunday.

"The cars are going to be fast, that's the good thing about the Penske organization and especially around this place," he said. "I know the car is going to be fast and the setup is going to be very close, and it's just going to be me going out there and figuring it out, what I need in a race car, how I get the speed out of it."

It wasn't a great day for the Andretti Autosport organization, which celebrated two drivers on the podium in the season opener at St. Petersburg. James Hinchcliffe got his first win and Marco Andretti was a career-best third.

But the Andretti cars were not among the leaders Friday. E.J. Viso was the fastest of the group in seventh despite going off course in the second session. Defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay was 12th, Hinchcliffe was 15th after leaving Barber second fastest in testing, and Andretti was 19th.

"Today did not go as planned, but you get these days in racing," Hinchcliffe said.

But Hunter-Reay said strategy played into his showing.

"We were very disciplined with the tires this afternoon, not taking a second set, which is why we're down in the charts right now - we never took the second set like most of the rest of the field," he said. "I think we're a top-five car right now, so I'm happy about that."