INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jimmie Johnson posted the fastest lap of his career Thursday as IndyCar drivers got back to work Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This time, there were no spins, no crashes and not as much talk about the slick warmup lane.
Instead, drivers raced toward the top of the speed chart on a busy second and final day of testing on the historic 2.5-mile oval. Thirty-one of the 32 drivers entered in next month’s Indianapolis 500 participated with speeds topping out above 229 mph.
Once the rain cleared, warm, sunny, calm conditions created a tamer environment than Wednesday as hundreds of fans watched from the mounds near the speedway’s museum.
“Things feel really good on the No. 2 car. It’s not like two steps forward and one back or vice versa,” two-time series champ Josef Newgarden said after posting the best lap at 229.519. “I feel really confident with what we’ve got and feel good about showing up anywhere.”
He should. Newgarden has won two straight.
Takuma Sato of Japan, a two-time Indy winner, had the second-best lap at 229.427. Tony Kanaan, the Brazilian who won the 500 in 2013, was third at 228.767 and seven-time NASCAR champion Johnson was eighth at 227.900 as Chip Ganassi Racing claimed five of the top 10 spots.
But the lingering question was never about speed.
Everyone wanted to see whether track officials solved the warmup lane problem that caused three race winners to spin and led to two crashes Wednesday. The results kept Kanaan on the phone with speedway president Doug Boles late into Wednesday night, and before the track opened after a four-hour rain delay, Kanaan advised colleagues to take it slowly and use common sense.
Boles said track workers spent five hours dragging tires through the apron in hopes of providing more grip. An inspection revealed the historic 2.5-mile oval had 25% more grip than the exit to pit road, believed to be at least in part because there was more traffic on the actual course since Rapid Penetrating Emulsion was added to the surface last fall.
The substance helps the track dry quicker, which helped everyone get back to work Thursday, and Kanaan thought the late-night work made a difference.
“It was better in lane one today, but they know they have a lot of work to do,” Kanaan said. “If there’s a track that’s going to get it done, it’s this one.”
Kanaan said he’s been assured track officials will grind the track, if needed, before the May 29 race.
Ideal weather conditions kept most cars on the track for the entire session but even when cars did pit, none spun a welcome reprieve.
Will Power, the 2018 Indy winner, said it felt like he was driving through water Wednesday when his car did a 360-degree spin that sent him dangerously close to traffic near the first turn. Power’s car forced promising 22-year-old Colton Herta to take a higher line, which sent Herta into the wall.
Herta’s crash, the second in less than an hour, prompted series officials to end Wednesday’s testing early so a more thorough inspection could be conducted.
“The eye test tells you the grip level will be back up, the tennis shoe test tells you it will be,” Boles said Thursday morning.
It’s not the first time the 113-year-old speedway has faced worries from drivers.
Only six Formula One cars started the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix because of worries over Michelin’s tires lasting no longer than 10 laps. Three years later, NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 was marred by a similar situation with Goodyear tires. Both races were held on the oval.
Last year, Cup drivers used Indy’s road course for the first time and the race was marred by deteriorating curbing that sent some cars airborne and damaged others. NASCAR officials red-flagged the race so track workers could remove the curbing before the 200-mile race was completed.
Then came Wednesday.
Before a single lap was turned, Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indy winner, spun on the warmup lane. Then with about 80 minutes left in the day’s third and final two-hour test session, Brazil’s Helio Castroneves was sent sliding through a grass strip and hard into the second turn wall.
Castroneves and Herta were both examined at the track’s infield medical center and released shortly after they hit the wall.
Both were cleared to drive for Thursday, but the damage to Castroneves’ car was too severe.
Boles said he called Castroneves to apologize.
“I take this so personally because you want this to be the most special racetrack in the world,” Boles said. “What I want and, I’m sure we can solve by race day, is to get in and out of the pits as fast as you can go.”
But the biggest winner may have been Johnson.
“It’s a very cool sensation and now I understand why when I ask the guys what it’s like to go fast around here they just smile,” Johnson said. “I’m starting to get that grin and I’m looking forward to having that smile.”