FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Ryan Hunter-Reay was about halfway through the first practice session at the high-banked, high-speed Texas Motor Speedway when his car got loose in Turn 2.
The car spun and headed backward toward the outside wall, the left rear slamming hard before the Honda slid down and settled near the inside wall. But Hunter-Reay never went airborne Friday, like three Chevrolets did last month during preparation for the Indianapolis 500.
Whether Hunter-Reay’s car staying grounded had anything to do with new safety changes, his single-car crash was the first since IndyCar this week mandated closure panels on the rear wheel guards for Saturday night’s race at Texas. The panels will also be in place for the other superspeedway races remaining on the schedule, California and Pocono.
“From the time that accidents happened in May until now, they’ve come to a better understanding of what was causing some problems and implemented some real solutions for here so then we don’t have to worry about it,” said Ed Carpenter, the defending race winner at Texas, and one of the drivers who went airborne at Indy. “It’s not really a Band-Aid type of fix like we had in May.”
The closure panels are designed to eliminate lift when an Indy car is traveling backward at a high rate of speed during an incident.
Will Power will start from the pole at the 1 1/2-mile Texas for the third year in a row, with his three Team Penske drivers and their Chevys close to him. Power’s win at Texas came in the second race of a 2011 doubleheader, when he started third.
Defending IndyCar Series champion Power had a two-lap qualifying average of 218.519 mph, just ahead of Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud at 218.441 mph.
Helio Castroneves will start third, right behind Power’s Chevrolet and ahead of fellow Penske driver Indianapolis 500 champ and season points leader Juan Pablo Montoya, who qualified fifth.
Carpenter will start 15th in IndyCar’s first night race of the season.
Even with the new aero kits in use this year, and the closure panels in place, Power’s qualifying average was just below his 218.896 mph to get the pole last year. And practice speeds Friday were comparable to last June.
“The race, it’s going to be interesting. You know, you got all this stuff you can put on to add downforce if you want. But it’s quite draggy, so you lose a bit of speed,” said Power, whose fourth pole this season is the 40th of his career. “It’s going to be about finding the right compromise for speed loss versus grip. … I think you’ll see a few different variations of what people bolt on as far as body kits go for the race.”
IndyCar has been to Texas every year since the track opened in 1997, with two races eight times, and has a history of some of the series’ fastest and closest races — eight by less than one-tenth of a second.
But that hasn’t been the case recently.
Carpenter’s victory over Power last June was by 0.547 seconds, but Carpenter led by 17-18 seconds before a late caution set up a final two-lap sprint to the checkered flag.
Helio Castroneves won by 4.7 seconds in 2013, his fourth victory in Texas. Justin Wilson won by nearly 4 seconds in 2012 only after Graham Rahal drifted high into the wall exiting the fourth turn after pulling away from the field.
“The truth is, last year was probably the most demanding race as a driver to physically drive,” Rahal said.
“What you see nowadays versus what we’ve been spoiled with here as far as close racing, you know, 10 years ago, the tires aren’t what they were before,” he said. “We don’t have nearly as much downforce as you ever did before. The track isn’t grippy. This track is one of the bumpiest ovals we go to all season long.”
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