Alonso's mood brightens with return to Indy 500 practice

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INDIANAPOLIS – As a press conference with Fernando Alonso and Conor Daly began Friday evening in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center, Marco Andretti called Daly’s phone via FaceTime.

Smiling widely, Alonso grabbed the phone from Daly, turned it so Andretti was facing reporters and asked him if he’d like to say a few words.

Andretti paused. “I’ve got to go, guys,” he said before hanging up.

The playful interaction illustrated how the mood surrounding Alonso and his McLaren Racing team changed dramatically during a short period of time. On Wednesday, he crashed during practice for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. On Thursday, he didn’t make it back on track as the team’s crew prepared a backup car and replaced the damaged engine from the crashed car.

On Friday, though, Alonso returned to the fickle 2.5-mile oval and showed some speed and comfort during the final practice before Saturday’s opening day of qualifying.

“It was a positive day for us,” Alonso said. “We were able to put the car on track and try different directions on the setup and learn a little bit about the track and the day. Obviously, the (engine turbocharger) boost was up today, so the speeds were higher, and it was more a (qualifying) preparation than race setups. We had a lot of new tires (not used) from the last couple of days, so we were able to do a lot of runs, and hopefully that information will give us … a little bit of confidence into qualifying.”

Near the end of Friday’s session, Alonso posted his fastest lap of the week in the No. 66 McLaren Racing Chevrolet – 229.328 mph – good for 24th on the day’s speed chart. It came with help from a tow, however, and Alonso’s best lap without a tow – 226.869 mph – ranked 30th among the 36 drivers vying for a place on the 33-car grid for the start of the May 26 race.

While relieved and buoyed by the competitive speed with a tow, Alonso admitted he was concerned about qualifying.

“I am (worried),” he said. “But it’s the same for everyone. ... I think the (qualifying draw) order and when you will do the run is going to be a big factor if it's a hot day.

“There is nothing guaranteed, but I think it's the same for everyone. We saw also last year that surprises can happen, and hopefully tomorrow we are a good surprise and not a bad surprise.”

Alonso drew the 20th spot in the qualifying order when backup entries are eliminated from consideration. Daly, who had the fastest lap Friday – 231.704 mph – drew the No. 1 spot in the No. 25 United States Air Force Honda for Andretti Autosport. Qualifying begins Saturday at 11 a.m. ET (11 a.m.-5 p.m. on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold, 5-6 p.m. on NBCSN). Earlier qualifying attempts will likely take place before the track heats up and speeds fall off.

In the meantime, McLaren engineers and crew members continue their step-by-step process to find more speed.

“We've been going through everything together, the whole team," said Gil de Ferran, McLaren Racing's sporting director. "... There's a lot of guys with experience (but) as a crew we're very new together. And obviously we have to step through things very calmly, very slowly in a very determined manner, and today was actually all about that.”

While 12 drivers topped 230 mph with Friday’s added boost, only one – Ed Jones – did it without a tow. If Alonso expects to make it into the Fast Nine Shootout, he’ll need to make substantial gains at the last minute.

For Alonso, Friday’s return was more about finding stability than it was about finding speed.

“It was more about setup of the car, not necessarily on the trimming or on the aerodynamic side,” he said. “Also, sometimes you can solve all the problems on the mechanical side. Once you are happy with the car, maybe you start trimming a little bit more. We worked a lot on the mechanical grip, and we found a better direction through the day than when we started. We need to look through the data tonight and hopefully have an even better starting point tomorrow. There is only one shot, so let's try to make it right.”

As de Ferran said shortly after Alonso’s crash Wednesday, the team is putting one foot in front of the other, methodically recovering and preparing.

“We had a nice clean day, as Fernando said,” de Ferran said Friday. “We had a lot of tires (to use). We were working through changes in the setup and slowly trying to trim out the car towards the latter half of the day. But I think in the situation we find ourselves, it's important to stay calm and continue to improve the car little by little.”

Three 30-minute practice sessions – the first two with the field split in halves, the last one with all cars – will begin at 8 a.m. Saturday and will stream on INDYCAR Pass.

In Saturday’s qualifying session, drivers will compete for one of 30 locked-in starting positions and a spot in Sunday’s Fast Nine Shootout, which determines the starting order for the first three rows for the Indy 500.

Sunday’s qualifying session has the Last Row Shootout for the final three grid spots and the Fast Nine Shootout, with NBC airing it all live starting at noon. NBCSN takes over at 3 p.m. to telecast an expected lively practice for the 33 qualifiers.

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