O’Ward leads Friday’s INDYCAR practice from Long Beach, my recap/thoughts/top 5 takeaways

Pato O’Ward enters this weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) on top of the points standings. The 23-year-0ld driver has finished runner-up in each of the first two races of the year. On Friday, he finally took the top spot.

O’Ward led the 27-car field in the opening 75-minute session around the 1.968-mile scenic street circuit with a top lap of 1:06.6999-seconds. That was .2650-seconds clear of the rest of the competition as his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet looks like it has legitimate race winning pace.

Six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion, Scott Dixon, was second in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver circled the track with a time of 1:06.9649-seconds. Colton Herta (1:06.9808-seconds) was third in his No. 26 Dallara-Honda while Marcus Ericsson (1:06.9859-seconds) and Romain Grosjean (1:07.1049-seconds) rounded out the top five in a session that had just one interruption.

Less than half a second separated the top seven drivers in the 27-driver field under sunny Southern California skies.

“It’s a tight field,” O’Ward said. “Long Beach is always such an intense qualifying. We just kept chipping at it today. We rolled off strong, but we’ve been definitely making adjustments to get it a little more in the window, a bit more to this track’s characteristics and to what I like. So far, it’s good.”

The practice saw everyone pushing it to the absolute limit around here. That’s why we witnessed several drivers clip the concrete barriers at different points around the track on Friday.

While some may wonder if this is a sign of the rest of the weekend, I do think we could see more of this tomorrow as everyone will push even harder, however, I don’t expect that at all on Sunday….

St. Pete Speed Transferred Over

Most street course tracks translate well over from one to the other. That’s because it’s the same package. However, some wondered how much Long Beach would relate to the annual St. Pete season opener. With St. Pete being repaved in a lot of areas, Alexander Rossi notes that the Florida street circuit is becoming more and more like an all-terrain road course. However, after looking at the opening practice speed chart on Friday, it looks like last month’s pace does translate over.

3 of the top 4 speeds went to the podium finishers from St. Pete. The pole sitter from that weekend was fifth. Does the rest of the weekend look like this?

Team Penske Playing From Behind Again

A year ago, Team Penske won 3 of the 5 street course races. One of those was right here in Long Beach. This year however, they were struggling for pace in St. Pete.

They were 8th (Power), 10th (McLaughlin) and 22nd (Newgarden) in the opening practice in St. Pete. For the Saturday practice, they were 2nd (McLaughlin), 15th (Newgarden) and 19th (Power) respectively. They looked similar in qualifying.

Newgarden qualified 14th. Power was 10th and McLaughlin 6th.

On Friday in St. Pete, they were only 13th (McLaughlin), 14th (Newgarden) and 15th (Power).

Newgarden has three consecutive top two finishes here. Power has four Top-7’s in his last six. Right now, they’re behind again.

“This place is like a gnarly afternoon on the 405 (freeway) with hella traffic,” Newgarden said. “It’s Long Beach. I about did that (hit wall) four or five times. Some of the settings we started with were probably aggressive, and I was trying to make the most of it.

“But it’s good vibes here. I love this place, and the Hitachi car is quick.”

What’s concerning this weekend for them is the fact that since the UAK was introduced for the 2018 season, 10 of the 12 podium spots were taken via Fast Six starters.

Starting Positions Of Podiums Since 2018

2022: 2,6,3

2021: 14,1,2

2019: 1,4,2

2018: 1,2,13

The pole winner has been on the podium in three of the last four years. The second-place starter on the podium each year. 

Right now, I don’t think multiple Penske drivers get into the Fast Six.

Ilott Showing Might

Callum Ilott sits an impressive seventh in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES points. He’s constantly outperforming his equipment which includes finishes of 5th and 9th this year. He was fast in St. Pete and that pace has translated over to Long Beach. The top 16 in speeds on Friday belonged to all three McLaren’s, all three Penske’s, all three Rahal cars, 3 of the 4 Ganassi’s and 3 of the 4 Andretti’s. The only outlier?

Ilott. He was 8th ahead of all three Penske’s, all three RLL cars a McLaren and one Andretti. That’s saying something…

Much Better Start To The Weekend For RLL

Speaking of RLL, Friday was a vastly better day than the opening practice session for the last two races. In St. Pete, they were 17th (Jack Harvey), 25th (Christian Lundgaard) and 26th (Graham Rahal). In Texas, they had the bottom three speeds with Rahal (26th), Harvey (27th) and Lundgaard (28th). This weekend, all three were better than 17th.

Lundgaard was 10th, Harvey in 12th and Rahal at 16th.

If they can continue this pace, they could be factors this weekend for all in the Top-10 at the close of the day on Sunday when it matters the most.

Track Record?

Last year we broke the track record here (1:05.3095-seconds). Does that happen again? While Friday’s top lap was 1:06.6999-seconds, that’s quicker than Friday’s top lap last year. Simon Pagenaud went 1:07.1991-seconds in last year’s opening session. This year, the top seven went quicker than Pagenaud’s lap in Practice 1 last April.

Also like last year, the top laps were turned with the primary tire. What happens when the green alternate tires go on Saturday? Romain Grosjean went 1:05.6520-seconds on the Saturday morning session last year. What will tomorrow morning look like?

Next: Practice resumes at 11:45 a.m. ET Saturday, followed by NTT P1 Award qualifying at 3:05 p.m. (both sessions live on Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). Live coverage of the 85-lap race starts at 3 p.m. Sunday on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

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