Palou Paces Both Sessions of Open Test Friday at Thermal

Here’s a familiar phrase to NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers, teams and fans: Alex Palou appears to be the driver to beat this weekend.

Reigning NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Palou, who earned a series-high five victories last season en route to his second title in the last three years, led both sessions Friday on the first day of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES Open Test at The Thermal Club near Palm Springs, California.

Palou’s best overall lap of 1 minute, 39.3373 seconds came in the hotter, three-hour afternoon session in the No. 10 DHL Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Two-time series champion Palou also led the two-hour morning session with a lap of 1:39.5149 on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile circuit.

SEE: Test Results | Qualifying Groups

Usually, the biggest payoff of testing is valuable data for engineers and track knowledge for drivers. But there’s more at stake this weekend – a lot more.

Qualifying Saturday will divide the 27-driver field for two heat races Sunday. Those 10-lap heat races will whittle the field to 12 drivers for the 20-lap Sprint for the Purse non-points special event, with the winner of that race claiming $500,000. The 20-lap dash for cash will be divided into two 10-lap segments.

Live coverage of the heat races and Sprint for the Purse starts at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

“It was good,” Palou said. “Tire (degradation) is pretty high here, but it’s the same for everybody. Hopefully, that’s going to make the race very, very interesting.

“We want to focus on the race this weekend, but at the same time it’s an opportunity to take today and tomorrow morning as test days. It’s good. It’s exciting.”

Testing will continue from noon-2 p.m. ET and 4-6 p.m. Saturday. Qualifying for the two heat races, divided into two groups at a draw Thursday night, starts at 8 p.m. ET Saturday. Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network will cover all track action live Saturday.

The three drivers closest to Palou on Friday each turned their best laps in the cooler morning conditions.

Christian Lundgaard ended up second overall at 1:39.6974 in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Marcus Armstrong put two CGR drivers in the top three with his best lap of 1:39.7313 in the No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Alexander Rossi was fourth and the quickest Chevrolet-powered driver at 1:39.7556 in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren entry.

Felix Rosenqvist continued his strong early-season resurgence by ending up fifth at 1:39.7802 in the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda fielded by Meyer Shank Racing. That was the second-quickest lap of the warmer afternoon session, behind Palou.

All 27 drivers are trying to manage tire wear on the undulating, technical circuit at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains, especially as teams won’t be allowed to change their Firestone Firehawk rubber between the two 10-lap segments of the Sprint for the Purse without INDYCAR approval for emergency service.

“With the high tire (degradation), it should make for some good racing on Sunday,” Andretti Global driver Marcus Ericsson said. “We will see, especially on the 20-lap race when we have one set of tires. That’s going to be tough to keep your car underneath you, so I think that will create some good racing.”

NTT IndyCar Series PR