- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- With rain affecting two of the four practice days to date, the intensity ramped up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Wednesday evening.
After cars finally took to the track at 5 p.m., IMS officials hoped to extend the session until 7 p.m. But the rain that ended Tuesday's practice at mid-afternoon and delayed the start of Wednesday's action by five hours returned for good a little before 6:30.
In that 90-minute window, drivers turned more than 1,000 laps, led by Grand Prix of Indianapolis winner Simon Pagenaud's 226.122 mph tour -- the fastest lap of the week. Another GPI star, Jack Hawksworth, suffered the first crash of the week, taking moderate damage to his Bryan Herta Autosport Honda.
With the Grand Prix run on Saturday and many teams exhausted from converting their cars from road racing to oval trim, Sunday was the quietest practice day in recent memory. The action picked up Monday, when 30 drivers took to the track and Ryan Hunter-Reay ran the first 225 mph lap of the month despite hot, gusty conditions.
Temperatures were nearly 30 degrees cooler Wednesday after a cold front swept through the Hoosier state capital, as Pagenaud led nine drivers who topped 225.
"Obviously the conditions are very good for a fast lap," said the Frenchman. "The density of the air is stronger, so you can run a little bit less wing for the same amount of downforce as yesterday and the engines work better with stronger density in the air. That's why you see the big laps today.
"It's always enjoyable to get to close to 230," Pagenaud added. "Hopefully we can break that in qualifying."
Pagenaud is looking to improve on a career-best eighth-place finish in last year's Indianapolis 500.
"I'm very comfortable," he said. "The third year at Indianapolis is a big change compared to the first two years. I feel a lot more comfortable; I have a better vision of what I need for the race. I'm having a great time."
Unlike the past two years, there has been relative parity between engine manufacturers during practice, with Honda and Chevrolet evenly splitting the top 10 speeds so far.
"The Chevys and Hondas seem to be quite evenly matched, which I think is a good thing generally for the series," observed JR Hildebrand, who was second-fastest on the speed charts for Ed Carpenter Racing at 225.854 mph.
"Two years ago when the engine competition first started, there was a pretty definitive difference that the Hondas were better on race day, the Chevys were better in qualifying. Last year the Chevys had a little bit of the advantage across the board. It seems like we're in for a bit of a fight, so that's always good to make sure that everybody's in contention out there."
Sprint Cup star Kurt Busch has completed 165 practice laps between Sunday and Tuesday as he begins his quest to complete the Memorial Day Double, but with rain predicted for most of Wednesday, he flew to Charlotte to prepare for this weekend's NASCAR All-Star race. Parker Kligerman was named Busch's relief driver if he is unable to make it on time for the start of the All-Star race or the Coca-Cola 600.
Busch was second-fastest overall on Tuesday and third overall to that point, beaten only by Andretti Autosport teammate E.J. Viso, who is shaking down the No. 27 car for James Hinchcliffe. The Canadian sustained a concussion during Saturday's race and has not yet been cleared to drive.
"It definitely wasn't on my radar," Busch said of his Tuesday ranking. "But what I've been able to do as a student is each day progress at a strong rate, and progressing is being able to digest the information and then being able to apply it the next day. Each day out, the Andretti Autosport team has helped me with a game plan on what's next, so it's nice when you can have a solid forecast of what to expect."
Busch was actually slightly relieved to have his Wednesday program rained out. His best Tuesday lap of 224.159 mph is good for 18th overall.
"I think it's a nice point to just have a reset and have a day when we're not continuing to feed information and just have a day to digest," he said. "We'll have qualifying Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and then come back around and work on race trim again Monday."
Mikhail Aleshin is the fastest rookie so far (fifth at 225.310 mph), while Juan Montoya ran seventh-fastest in his return to the IMS oval in an Indy car for the first time since he won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000.
"Right now we just want to get comfortable in the car," Montoya said. "The first time I was here it took me about three laps to get comfortable. This time it was a few more."
Montoya ran 117 laps (293 miles) on Monday and called it "a workout."
"I will definitely sleep good tonight," he said. "It's all part of the step-by-step process to get to where we need to be for the race. All in all I think things are going according to plan."
Jacques Villeneuve, who is racing in the 500 for the first time since he won in 1995, is yet to top 222 mph. The 19 years between Indy starts would establish a record.
"Ticking off laps on this track by yourself is one thing, but it's a whole different animal when you're out there racing others," he said. "We didn't get to run in the big group of cars at the very end of the day, but I did get to run with my teammates a bit. We still need to concentrate more on running with the pack."
Two more six-hour practice sessions precede the thoroughly revamped qualification weekend, which breaks with tradition by delaying the crowning of the pole winner until Sunday afternoon.
7dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz