May 12, 2012  |   By John Oreovicz

Wave That Flag

It was a USA 1-2-3 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Opening Day.

Sarah Fisher Racing, a team as homegrown as they come, took two of the top three speeds on the initial day of practice for the 2012 Indianapolis 500 with a pair of rookie drivers.

Josef Newgarden, SFR’s full-time driver, paced the first day action with a 220.250 mph lap in the Dollar General DW-12 Honda, while USAC star Bryan Clauson was close behind at 219.632 mph.

Sandwiched in between was last year’s Indy runner-up JR Hildebrand, the old man of the group at 24. The combined age of Sarturday’s top three is just 67 years.

“There are so many young Americans in the pipeline doing a great job, winning races and leading championships,” said Newgarden, the Nashville native who won the 2011 Indy Lights championship. “I don’t know how I got here because it’s tough, but our job is to help nurture that talent and get it here to the top level.”

Although the results haven’t always showed it, Newgarden has attracted plenty of attention so far this year in his rookie IndyCar Series campaign. He’s showed plenty of speed on several occasions and showed he wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the likes of four-time series champion Dario Franchitti.

Newgarden and Clauson often ran together throughout the opening day, combining for 87 laps.

“I think it speaks volumes for the team,” said Newgarden. “They’ve been doing a great job all year. They’ve built good, reliable, comfortable race cars for me, and now they’re doing that for Bryan too. That’s what makes days like this possible.”

Meanwhile, Hildebrand showed that he’s determined to put last year’s disappointment at Indianapolis behind him.

“It’s definitely important to get off to a good start,” he said. “We didn’t know what to expect; there are a lot more variables this year, and we’re pleased to be up front with a Chevy after all the talk about turbos recently.

“With everything new, teams are losing the advantages they had developed for the last car,” he added. We didn’t know how we were going to roll out, and it’s good for our confidence to roll out the way we did.”

Hildebrand said he was glad to see the DW12 crach the 220-mph barrier but added that he pines for even more speed.

“Growing up watching Arie Luyendyk run 236 mph, I’d be kind of bummed if I never got to experience that kind of speed, now being 15 years later,” he said. “That’s just my personal feeling. My hope is the speed starts to come back sooner than later.”

Charlie Kimball made it four Americans in the top six, pacing the four-car Ganassi Racing attack. Scott Dixon was 10th, Graham Rahal 13th, and two-time 500 winner Franchitti 18th after running just 19 laps.

Helio Castroneves, who is trying to become a four-time Indianapolis winner, led Penske Racing’s effort by running seventh fastest at 217.517 mph. Will Power was 14th and Ryan Briscoe 16th.

Among the other rookies, Rubens Barrichello was P20 at 215.340 mph, while Jean Alesi notched 32 laps and improved to the 209 mph bracket.