Penske cars find pace in final St. Pete practice before qualifying

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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – There was a conspicuous absence from the top of the leaderboard in Friday’s practice sessions for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. No more.

Team Penske, which has more Indy car race wins and Indianapolis 500 victors than any other team in the sport’s history, pushed its three drivers into the top five of Saturday morning’s practice – the final session before NTT P1 Award qualifying later in the day.

FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG: Practice 3 results I Combined practice results I Qualifying Round 1 groups

Josef Newgarden ran second in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, Simon Pagenaud was fourth in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevy and Will Power fifth in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevy. The best any of the trio managed through two practices was ninth overall.

“We were definitely better,” said Newgarden, whose best lap in the third practice on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street course as 1 minute, 0.9005 of a second 106.403 mph). It ranked second only to Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport, who set the pace for the second time in three sessions with a lap of 1:00.8966 (106.410 mph) in the No. 28 DHL Honda.

“The car felt a lot faster than yesterday,” Newgarden added. “INDYCAR is so tough now. You can’t be confident or comfortable anymore. I think it just speaks volumes to the competition level, the amount of teams we have that are all good, the driver quality.”

Pagenaud ran a best lap of 1:01.0500 and Power was clocked at 1:01.0750 to give Team Penske a shot of confidence heading into qualifying for the 2019 season opener. Power has owned St. Pete qualifying in recent years, capturing pole position for seven of the last nine events here. He won the race from the pole in 2011 and ’15.

“I thought we showed up with good race cars,” Newgarden said. “We weren’t as fast as we want to be (Friday) and now we’ve made it a bit better. I think we’re in a better window.”

Sato was just as pleased with his third-place effort in practice. The 2017 Indy 500 winner turned a lap of 1:00.9033 in the No. 30 Panasonic/Seeman Holtz Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

“Been a good day – good days, actually, from yesterday,” Sato said. “We’ve progressed really nicely. Very productive practice session. So far, feeling really positive.”

NTT P1 Award qualifying airs live at 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN, INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. The format consists of three rounds of knockout qualifying, concluding the with the Firestone Fast Six to determine the pole winner in the 24-car field.

A 30-minute warmup practice is scheduled for 9:20 a.m. Sunday (INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold). The NTT IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for the ninth straight year. Coverage of the 110-lap race begins at 12:30 p.m. on NBCSN and 1 p.m. on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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