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IndyCar points leader Alex Palou third in first Long Beach practice; Pato O’Ward struggles

IndyCar practice Long Beach

LONG BEACH, California -- With the NTT IndyCar title at stake, points leader Alex Palou got his weekend off to a great start while his championship rivals struggled Friday in the opening practice for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Palou, who is making his Long Beach debut, turned the third-fastest lap (1 minute, 9.4554 seconds) during the 45-minute session on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile street circuit. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver ranked just behind Colton Herta (1:09.2680) and Simon Pagenaud (1:09.4334).

“Good session,” Palou told NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider. “I like the track. This was all about getting to know the track and see how that car was handling.”

FRIDAY PRACTICE: Speeds from the first session at Long Beach

It didn’t go as smoothly for Pato O’Ward, who trails Palou by 35 points entering Sunday’s season finale (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). The normally upbeat Arrow McLaren SP driver was dejected after ranking 16th in practice (1:10.2451).

“That’s where we’re at,” O’Ward told NBC Sports reporter Kevin Lee. “We need to work. Just everywhere. We just need to sort it out and find time. I guess we yard-sale the car (for qualifying Saturday) and see where we go.”

Josef Newgarden, who remains mathematically eligible for the title at a 48-point deficit but virtually needs to score maximum points and O’Ward and Palou to falter, was 10th fastest after being penalized 5 minutes for a red flag when his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet made light contact with a tire barrier in a Turn 9 spin.

“Pretty short for us,” Newgarden said. “We rolled off with a couple of gremlins and didn’t make much work in the first session. but I’ve got a good feel for the car, and it feels like we have something to work with. I feel confident going into (Saturday), just need some time to digest everything.”

Felix Rosenqvist, O’Ward’s Arrow McLaren SP teammate, was fourth fastest (1:09.4870), and Ryan Hunter-Reay was fifth (1:09.5154).

Hunter-Reay is making his final start with Andretti Autosport, which announced Friday that Romain Grosjean will drive the No. 28 Dallara-Honda next season.

Aside from Newgarden’s spin, Scott Dixon, Oliver Askew and Jimmie Johnson also had incidents during the first practcice but avoided any major damage.

The biggest moment came for Herta, who somehow saved his No. 26 Dallara-Honda as it went sideways off a corner after bottoming out over a curb.

“I thought I was going to hit the wall,” Herta said. “Luckily, I don’t know what happened, but it didn’t. Kind of one of those things where you have big front tires, sometimes the car saves itself. That’s kind of what happened there. I was just along for the ride.

There will be another practice Saturday at noon ET (Peacock Premium) before qualifying for the season finale at 3:05 p.m. ET (NBCSN/Peacock Premium).