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IndyCar practice speeds dominated by silly season heading into Belle Isle’s final race

Felix Rosenqvist loses control into the tire barrier, making two straight years he ends the Detroit Grand Prix with a crash.

DETROIT -- The milk has barely been washed out of Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson’s firesuit, and the NTT IndyCar Series silly season has gone wild.

The Swede is the new points leader, free agency has picked up at a dizzying pace, and the reigning IndyCar champion said his name wrongly was placed into the rumor mill.

And it’s the last race on Belle Isle, to boot -- and the opening practice to the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix fittingly was dominated by drivers who have been in the headlines the past couple of weeks.

Rookie Kyle Kirkwood, who recently was announced as heading to Andretti Autosport next season, paced Friday’s session in Detroit with a 1-minute, 16.1345-second lap around the 14-turn, 2.35-mile street course.

FRIDAY SESSION: Speeds from afternoon practice

CHEVROLET GRAND PRIX OF DETROIT: Schedules, entry list, how to watch

Though the 2021 Indy Lights champion wants to finish well in his lone season for AJ. Foyt Racing’s No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet, Kirkwood said his impending move had been known for a while.

“For me it’s really just not a focal point at all,” said Kirkwood, who won the Indy Lights title with Andretti and also won a GTD pole Friday as a late substitute driver in IMSA. “To me it hasn’t changed anything. It’s been, yeah, some time now that we’ve actually did it.

“For me it’s been the same thing. It’s the same goal always. We’ve got 11 races left. Right now we’re doing solid. Obviously the focus is still with A.J. Foyt Racing because all I want to do is win for the team because they worked really hard for it.”

After finishing runner-up in the Indy 500, Pato O’Ward was second fastest in practice for Arrow McLaren SP, which formally introduced new driver Alexander Rossi (whom Kirkwood will replace at Andretti) in a Friday news conference.

Though Rossi (who was third fastest Friday) and O’Ward will be teammates, it still is uncertain whether Felix Rosenqivst will stay as the third driver with McLaren adding a car next year

“So Felix is staying?” Helio Castroneves, who also is in a contract year, asked O’Ward in an interview after practice.

“I really hope he stays,” O’Ward said.

“OK,” said Castroneves, who was eighth fastest in practice. “No hint in who’s going to be the third car?

“No idea. I have no say.”

O’Ward is focused on winning his first championship, trying to pass new points leader Ericsson in the standings. Each won a Belle Isle race last season in the track’s final doubleheader weekend (after a nine-year run).

Sunday’s race will be the last at Belle Isle after three decades for IndyCar, which will move to a new downtown layout in 2023.

Rossi said he decided last summer that this seventh season with Andretti would be his last. Andretti held an exclusive negotiating window with Rossi but let him sign with McLaren early to facilitate its Kirkwood move. Rossi is approaching the three-year mark of his last victory.

“It was clear that I was going to look at different options and explore what was out there,” said Rossi. “I’ve driven for Andretti Autosport for a long time. Sometimes you need to change things, whether that’s on a personal side, a professional side or the both combined. I think it was time for a change.”

But what about that third McLaren seat next year?

O’Ward made a strong case to keep his current teammate Rosenqvist, who is in a contract year and still being evaluated by the team. He finished fourth in the Indy 500 but was involved in an incident Friday in practice (video above).

Rosenqvist, who missed two races after a crash at Detroit last year, was unhurt after sliding into a Turn 1 tire barrier

The name most associated with the open Arrow McLaren SP ride, though, has been defending series champion Alex Palou. The Spaniard won the IndyCar title in his first season driving for Ganassi - second in IndyCar - and has become a hot commodity in the paddock.

Palou was thrilled Friday to be part of the rumor mill but sdoesn’t know why his fellow competitors think he’s leaving Ganassi for McLaren.

“I’m good. I’m not talking to other teams,” Palou said. “I mean, my name is all around, but because somebody is interested doesn’t mean I am interested.”

NO REGRETS: The ink has only just dried on O’Ward’s contract extension with Arrow McLaren SP and he’s thinking big picture all the way. He lifted off the gas on the last lap at Indy as he challenged Ericsson for the win, and on Friday still thought it was the right decision.

O’Ward believes he couldn’t complete the winning pass and would have crashed - an inexcusable result in a race worth double points. Ericsson shot from eighth to first in the standings with the victory, while O’Ward moved from seventh to second and sits 13 points back from he lead.

“I 100% made the right call,” O’Ward said Friday. “I just don’t think trying to be a hero there was going to payoff in helping us win a championship. I think that was going to be a huge blow to the championship and just not worth it.”

Other drivers disagreed, with reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou insisting he’d have gone for the Indy 500 victory no matter what.

O’Ward had the backing of his team, though, as Arrow McLaren makes huge steps toward becoming one of IndyCar’s top organizations with the addition of Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner. O’Ward already had signed an extension last week and is the centerpiece of the organization, and McLaren has plans to build a state-of-the-art Indianapolis shop as it prepares to expand to three cars next year.

“What I’m proud of is Pato’s maturity to understand us as an organization,” said team president Taylor Kiel. “He made a move that was wise beyond his years with the bigger picture in mind. I know in his heart he wanted to keep it flat, see what happened. But something in the back of his mind said, `Let’s focus on the championship.’ That to me is a huge thing.”

DIXON’S MOOD: The Indy 500 was Scott Dixon’s to lose, and he did.

A speeding penalty on pit road decimated Dixon’s shot at a second Indy 500 victory after he’d dominated nearly the entire build-up to the race. He went over 234 mph in a record-setting pole-winning run and then led 95 of the 200 laps.

Dixon has made winning another Indy 500 the highest priority and the six-time IndyCar champion was “for sure devastated after the race,” said Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Palou.

The New Zealander insisted Friday he’s fine.

“We’re in Detroit now. I feel amazing,” said Dixon, who added he doesn’t often carry disappointments for long. “I’m pretty quick with that stuff. For me, it’s more about how everybody else feels. I think the saving grace was one of the Ganassi cars (Ericsson) still won the race.”