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Josef Newgarden leads eventful opening IndyCar practice at Laguna Seca

Alex Palou is in the driver's seat to capture this season's IndyCar Series championship, but Pato O'Ward, Josef Newgarden, and Scott Dixon are still in contention.

Josef Newgarden led the opening practice Friday for the IndyCar Grand Prix of Monterey, beating a squadron of Hondas at WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway.

Newgarden turned a lap of 1 minute, 11.7215 seconds on the fourth of 11 laps around the 2.238-mile road course in his Team Penske No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet.

The next 10 cars after Newgarden all were powered by Honda, starting with Colton Herta (1:11.7927). The Andretti Autosport driver, who is trying to defend his 2019 victory at Laguna Seca, avoided damage to his No. 26 Dallara-Honda when he went off course in a spin through the Corkscrew corner late in the 45-minute practice.

INDYCAR AT LAGUNA SECA: Details for watching Sunday’s race

Points leader Alex Palou (1:11.9750) was third on the speed chart off his victory at Portland International Raceway, followed by Ed Jones (1:12.0166) and Alexander Rossi (1:12.0625). The rest of the top 10 were: Oliver Askew, James Hinchcliffe, Jack Harvey, Romain Grosjean and Marcus Ericsson.

With two races remaining in the NTT IndyCar Series season, Palou leads by 25 points over Pato O’Ward with Newgarden (34 points behind), Scott Dixon (49) and Ericsson (75) also in contention for the championship.

After losing the points lead to Palou with a disappointing 14th at Portland, O’Ward was 14th in Friday’s practice session. Dixon, who is trying to win a seventh championship, had the 11th-quickest lap.

FRIDAY’S SPEEDS: Click here for the full practice chart

Any driver 54 points outside of the points lead after Sunday’s race will be eliminated entering the Sept. 26 season finale at the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Newgarden, who clinched his second championship at this track two years ago, was wary of his practice being a predictor for qualifying. He started 18th at Portland after being fifth in practice.

“Obviously things can change quickly,” he said. “In Portland we were pretty sorted out in practice one, we choked in qualifying and were pretty far off the pace. That’s the No. 1 thing for us in the 2 car, have a consistent run all the way through. If we can do that, we’ll be in the fight.”

Sunday’s race will mark only the second IndyCar race in 17 years at Laguna Seca, which was removed from the 2020 schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With many drivers testing the limits around the 11-turn natural terrain layout, there were several off-road excursions that also included Rossi, Helio Castroneves (who briefly got stuck in gravel), Dalton Kellett and Callum Ilott.

Scott McLaughlin also appeared to stall slightly off course as time expired in the session.

Herta and Newgarden said it was difficult to evaluate the track with so many drivers going off course. Both drivers also used only one set of tires in practice.

“It’s just really hard,” Newgarden said. “It’s a 45-minute session, which is already condensed. If you’re only going to run one set of tires, which we did, you get really one run to get a read. Even the second run, because the dropoff is quite high, it can muddy any read you’re trying to perform.

It’s just incredibly difficult to understand what the car’s doing or if you want to improve it, then the dust gets kicked up on the track a lot when you have (27) cars.

“We didn’t have it so much at the test because there were not many cars continually going off. You had a lot of cars here that were just constantly kicking up dirt onto curbing. It makes it difficult to read the car here and understand where things are at.

But I think that’s part of the challenge at these types of tracks, you have to be really good at doing it. Whenever you get a really good run, you have to assess the car with that.”

Another intriguing factor for Sunday’s race will be the 27-car field, which is three more than the last IndyCar race at Laguna Seca.

Herta said it’s made the pit lane seem “jam-packed. We are like sardines in a can this weekend. I feel like there are 24 pit spots, but we’re all crammed in there. It will be interesting.

“I think if there’s a yellow flag pit stop, that will be very interesting. I think some guys might have to get pushed back and stuff. Oh, yeah, it can make a difference, especially here. It’s tight. It’s going to be interesting for the race.”

There will be another practice at 1:45 p.m. ET Saturday before qualifying at 5:05 p.m. ET (Peacock Premium).