Indy 500 Notes: American rookie Newgarden tops Opening Day charts

Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s Josef Newgarden led an American 1-2-3 at the top of the time sheets during Saturday’s incident-free opening practice for the 2012 Indianapolis 500.

The pride of Hendersonville, Tennessee led the charts with a lap of 220.250 mph in the No. 67 Dollar General Honda, with Panther Racing’s J.R. Hildebrand in P2 at 219.693 mph in the No. 4 National Guard Chevrolet and SFHR’s second driver for the month, Bryan Clauson, in P3 at 219.632 in the No. 39 Honda.

In his first year of IZOD IndyCar Series action, Newgarden has impressed with both his natural talent and humility. He showed the latter in his post-practice comments, crediting SFHR for their ability to produce “really good, reliable, comfortable race cars.”

“That’s all it is, really,” he said. “They make our job really easy, and I think that’s what you guys are seeing. It bodes well, if anything; it’s not really a big deal to be quick on this day, but it speaks well for the team. I think the team deserves that credit. I’m really happy for them that they get the credit because they do deserve it. They do a good job, and I’m proud to be with them.”

As for Hildebrand, who finished second in last year’s ‘500’ after crashing with the lead on the final lap, he feels that he and Panther are ready to go one spot further and finally end a string of four consecutive runner-up finishes in the race. That said, they’re also taking their time figuring out how to get the most out of their new equipment at Indy.

“There’s a lot of new things for us with the chassis and the motors,” Hildebrand said. “I think having a methodical approach in how to make the car quicker and the sensitivity to adjustments this year is going to be more important than in years past.”

Clauson, the two-time defending USAC champion, is also expecting to have a good month as he makes his Indy 500 debut.

“It will be interesting to see as the month goes on where guys end up,” the Indiana native said. “It’s hard to tell whose flat-out at this point and who is not. But I felt really good about our car and the program we have in place for the rest of the month.”

Jay Howard was recently released from his obligation to drive for Michael Shank Racing’s Indy 500 program due to the team’s continued difficulties in landing a competitive engine. But the British driver and former Firestone Indy Lights champion hasn’t given up on his ‘500’ hopes yet. He was on the scene Saturday at IMS, pounding the pavement in search of potential opportunities.

“You know, stranger things have happened,” said Howard. “Over these last four weeks of the roller coaster — it looked like it was going to happen, wasn’t going to happen, was going to happen — and then with all the other drama that May brings, we’re still hopeful. You never stop working on it, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Drivers certainly have their routines, and Howard has one that he hopes will help him get on the grid.

“It’s funny, I used to carry my helmet and gear everywhere, no matter if I went to Florida or Texas, wherever,” he explained. “If I wasn’t in a car, I’d carry my gear but never got the opportunity to get in a car. The first time I didn’t take my gear, I got a call. So now I’m not taking my gear anywhere. I guess that’s my little superstition.”

In a move that could coax an extra four to five mph out of the cars, INDYCAR has confirmed that it will increase boost levels to 140 kPa (kilopascals) on all cars for “Fast Friday” practice and next weekend’s qualifying sessions.

The increase will yield an extra 40-50 horsepower for the three days of action. According to INDYCAR engine development director Trevor Knowles, that may lead to speeds of 225 mph — the target that INDYCAR had in mind for the new car at Indianapolis — should the weather remain in good standing.

All other practice sessions and Race Day, May 27 will maintain a 130 kPa boost level.

Other cool stuff

The white outside SAFER Barriers of the Speedway will now feature some advertising for this year’s race. Saturday’s opening practice revealed two ads on the north end of the track — one for Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka and another for Shell’s V-Power brand of gasoline. According to Curt Cavin of The Indianapolis Star, two more ads are slated to go up at the entrance of Turn 3 and exit of Turn 4…

Heading to IMS soon? Take along a pair of sunglasses for Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsports driver Simon Pagenaud. The IndyCar rookie plans on donating all of the pairs he collects to Goodwill of Indianapolis at the end of the month. Fans are encouraged to bring the sunglasses to him during autograph sessions, but he will accept sunglasses at any time. In addition, the Sam Schmidt Motorsports garages in Gasoline Alley will have collection bins outside…

Quotes/materials from team releases and series trackside reports were used in the making of this article.