INDIANAPOLIS — Jimmie Johnson set the fastest lap of his career on Thursday as IndyCar drivers got back to work at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This time there were no spins, no crashes and not as much talk on the slick warm-up lane.
Instead, the riders raced to the top of the speed chart on a busy second and final day of testing at the historic 2.5-mile oval. Thirty-one of the 32 drivers entered in the Indianapolis 500 next month participated with speeds exceeding 229 mph.
And once the rain cleared, warm, sunny and calm conditions created a calmer environment than Wednesday as hundreds of fans watched from mounds near the speedway museum.
“Things feel really good on the #2 car. It’s not like two steps forward and one back or vice versa,” said two-time series champion Josef Newgarden after setting the fastest lap in 229,519. “I feel really confident with what we have and I feel good showing up anywhere.”
He should. Newgarden have won two games in a row.
Takuma Sato of Japan, a two-time Indy winner, posted the second-fastest lap in 229.427. Tony Kanaan, the Brazilian who won the 500m in 2013, was third at 228.767 and a seven-time NASCAR champion. Johnson finished eighth at 227.900 as Chip Ganassi Racing took five of the top 10 spots.
But the lingering question was never about speed.
Everyone wanted to see if track officials had fixed the warm-up lane issue that spun three race winners and caused two crashes on Wednesday. The results kept Kanaan on the phone with speedway president Doug Boles late Wednesday night, and before the track opened after a four-hour rain delay, Kanaan advised his colleagues to take it slow and to use common sense.
Boles said track workers spent five hours dragging tires through the apron in hopes of providing more grip. An inspection revealed that the historic 2.5-mile oval had 25% more grip than the exit to pit road, believed to be at least partly due to more traffic on the actual course since Rapid Penetrating Emulsion was added to the surface last fall.
The stuff helps the track dry faster, which helped everyone get back to work on Thursday, and Kanaan thought the late-night work made a difference.
“It was better in the first lane today, but they know they have a lot of work to do,” Kanaan said. “If there’s one track that’s going to do it, it’s this one.”
Kanaan said he was assured that track officials would rectify the track, if necessary, ahead of the May 29 race.
Ideal weather conditions kept most cars on track for the entire session, but even when the cars pitted none spun, a welcome reprieve.
2018 Indy winner Will Power said he felt like he was driving through water on Wednesday when his car spun 360 degrees that sent him dangerously close to traffic near the first turn. Power’s car forced 22-year-old promising Colton Herta to take a higher line, which sent Herta into the wall.
Herta’s crash, the second in less than an hour, prompted series officials to end Wednesday’s testing early so that a closer inspection could be carried out.
“The eye test tells you the grip level will be back, the tennis shoe test tells you it will be,” Boles said Thursday morning.
It’s not the first time the 113-year-old highway has faced concerns from drivers.
Only six Formula 1 cars started the 2005 United States Grand Prix due to concerns over Michelin tires lasting no more than 10 laps. Three years later, NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 was marred by a similar situation with Goodyear tires. Both races were held on the oval.
Last year, Cup drivers used the Indy road course for the first time, and the race was marred by deteriorating brakes that caused some cars to lift off and damaged others. NASCAR officials red-flagged the race so track workers can remove the brake before the 200-mile race is over.
Then came Wednesday.
Before a single lap was shot, 2016 Indy winner Alexander Rossi spun down the warm-up lane. Then, around 80 minutes from the end of the third and final two-hour practice session of the day, Brazilian Helio Castroneves was sent sliding across a grass track and hard into the second corner wall.
Castroneves and Herta were both checked at the track medical center and released shortly after hitting the wall.
Both were cleared to drive for Thursday, but the damage to Castroneves’ car was too severe.
Boles said he called Castroneves to apologize.
“I take it very personally because you want it to be the most special racetrack in the world,” Boles said. “What I want and, I’m sure we can solve on race day, is to get in and out of the pits as fast as possible.”
But perhaps the biggest winner was Johnson.
“It’s a very cool feeling and now I understand why when I ask guys what it’s like to go fast here, they just smile,” Johnson said. “I’m starting to get that smile and I can’t wait to get that smile.”