2016 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma Practice: Castroneves Leads Penske Sweep

Helio Castroneves smiles before the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit at The Raceway at Belle Isle Park. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Helio Castroneves smiles before the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit at The Raceway at Belle Isle Park. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

2008 Sonoma race winner Helio Castroneves led Team Penske to sweep the top three positions in Friday’s IndyCar practice for the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Helio Castroneves may be out of the running for the IndyCar championship but that didn’t stop him from topping the leaderboard during Friday’s practice for the 2016 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Castroneves, who last emerged victorious in Sonoma in 2008, clocked a time of 1:16.6678  to finish ahead of the rest of his Penske teammates, two of whom – Simon Pagenaud and Will Power – are engaged in a heated battle for the drivers’ championship as they prepare for the final race of the 2016 season.

The Verizon IndyCar Series championship has come down to the final race now on 11 straight occasions.

Power finished just 0.0394 seconds adrift of Castroneves, while current championship leader Pagenaud finished a mere 0.31 behind the No. 3. The fourth Penske driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, finished a half-second behind Castroneves and sat sixth on the board at the end of the second session.

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“The Hitachi car has been dialed in,” Castroneves said after the session. “When we left here last Thursday practice, we felt really confident. We try a lot of bits; I guess that paid off. So today was just a continuation of what we finished that day.”

Splitting the field of Penske domination were the Andretti Autosport machines of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi, who were fourth and fifth on Friday. But it wasn’t all good news.

Making his homecoming after winning this year’s Indianapolis 500, Rossi’s No. 98 Andretti-Herta Honda came to a stop just after the start/finish line with two minutes remaining, triggering the second red flag of the session. A strange vibration was felt coming from his engine, Rossi later explained.

The session’s first red flag came after fellow rookie Conor Daly’s engine detonated just ten minutes earlier in the session. Afterward Daly said it was one of the most taxing practice sessions his Dale Coyne Racing team has faced all season.

“It’s probably been one of the most difficult Fridays that we’ve had on a race weekend,” he said. “Obviously we had some sort of a technical issue that I started feeling early on in the [first] session and then something let go in a big way. Hopefully we can just find some good direction tomorrow to finish the weekend on a high note.”

Rounding out the top ten on the combined practice leaderboard behind Montoya were Andretti’s Carlos Munoz, KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, and the Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton.

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Defending IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, who has won the last two races at Sonoma, finished a disappointing 16th in Friday’s session.

“It’s a bit of a frustrating start to the weekend here in Sonoma,” Dixon said. “We were just kind of down on speed for some reason. We didn’t get a good run on new tires in the second session either, as both times we went out the session got red-flagged.”

The field will have their next practice session on Saturday afternoon before qualifying at 6:05 p.m. ET/3:05 p.m. PT.

The 2016 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma takes place Sunday, Sept. 18 at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT. The race will be televised on NBCSN.