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IndyCar driver Justin Wilson finds himself near top of practice chart in new ride

ST. PETERSBURG — It was a long way back for Justin Wilson.

The third-fastest qualifier and ninth-place finisher at the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was released by powerful Newman/Haas/Lanigan after last season because of sponsorship shortfalls, and he didn't finalize a deal with comparatively tiny Dale Coyne Racing until this week.

But his best lap of 101.906 mph over the first two IndyCar sessions Friday around the 1.8-mile course was second-best only to his former teammate and defending race winner Graham Rahal (102.196).

"A lot of things have happened behind the scenes," said Wilson, who won at Belle Isle last season. "You get your hopes up and you think, 'Okay, this is going to happen,' and then something else works out and you're disappointed again."

Rahal, whose No. 02 bears the McDonald's sponsorship moved from Wilson's car, said he was happy for Wilson.

"It's exciting to see Justin here, because obviously being teammates for a year, we had a great time together, and unfortunately he's not back with us," he said. "But we were testing in Sebring and he was there, too, and you could see that they were right up to speed. So you knew that he was going to be competitive."

HOPEFUL: The Indy Racing League is again using St. Petersburg as a backdrop to woo potential sponsors and race venue representatives. As usual, the wining and dining is on a yacht in the temporary basin facing Turn 10, and in a twist, this year it's on a black-hulled vessel, Hope Floats.

IRL commercial division president Terry Angstadt would not identify corporations represented but said Porsche head of Motorsport Development/Powertrain Thomas Laudenbach is expected to attend. That automaker — which has a partnership with Volkswagen and Audi — along with Fiat Powertrain met with IRL officials in Germany in December to discuss joining the series in 2012.

IRL president of competition Brian Barnhart said he expected board votes from Porsche-Volkswagen-Audi by the end of March, but Angstadt said "they've gone a little bit radio silent," adding that a possible shuffle in the company's leadership might have delayed a vote.

Angstadt said he was not unnerved by the silence and that the IRL has "a couple other things developing as alternative plans that could be very exciting." Audi, he said, would likely build the German engines. Honda, the IRL's official engine supplier since 2007, wants new makes against which to compete.

All the representatives of prospective new race venues will be from domestic markets, including Birmingham, Ala., site of the Barber Motorsports Park road course that hosted an IRL test last week. But Angstadt said the series is taking a "hard look" at competing in Rio de Janeiro or Ouro Preto, Brazil.

SPARK PLUGS: Andretti Green Promotions vice president Kevin Savoree was positively giddy Friday afternoon over the larger-than-normal first-day crowd, especially considering his angst watching strong showers blow through downtown. … Race officials eliminated Grandstand 1 at the top of the airport straightway, saying it generally didn't sell well. … Dan Wheldon's No. 4 Panther Racing entry left the second practice on a hook. His car, struck from behind exiting his pit by Hideki Mutoh, suffered minor suspension damage when his left rear tire hit pit wall. Mutoh was penalized 10 minutes of practice time for "unavoidable contact." … J.R. Hildebrand earned the pole for today's Indy Lights race, the first of two this weekend, with a lap at 95.617 mph. … NASCAR legend Richard Petty will announce today that he is putting together a team to run the Indianapolis 500 for the first time, with John Andretti driving.

IndyCar driver Justin Wilson finds himself near top of practice chart in new ride 04/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 12:29am]

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