LEEDS, Ala. -- Team Penske, not surprisingly, set the pace in the Izod IndyCar Series' sole road-racing open test of the 2011 season.
Will Power led the first of two days of testing at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, then ran a close second to teammate and defending Barber race winner Helio Castroneves on Day 2. The two Penske entries were separated by just two hundredths of a second, with Ryan Briscoe claiming fourth place for the team.
Scott Dixon was third quickest for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, while Newman/Haas Racing turned in perhaps the most surprising performance of the test by claiming fifth (Oriol Servia) and seventh (rookie James Hinchcliffe) positions. Servia revealed that he will contest the full 2011 season for the Chicago-based team, while Indy Lights graduate Hinchcliffe admitted that his race to find funding to compete in the IndyCar Series this year will go right down to the wire.
The top 12 drivers lapped within a second of Castroneves' 1 minute, 11.9434-second benchmark.
"The field is so competitive and we have some new teams up at the top giving us a hard time," observed Castroneves. "My teammates Ryan and Will are also pushing each other, but I'm glad we were able to put the No. 3 up at the top at the end of the day."
With IndyCar's spec Dallara-Honda package now entering its ninth season of use, most of the top teams have extracted every bit of potential from the 2003 design. But teams with less experience with the car are still making big gains.
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesDario Franchitti, left, didn't like what he saw at Barber, but Scott Dixon was fairly pleased.
"The car has been decent, remaining in the top three both days," Dixon said. "But we're just going through the motions and making necessary adjustments before we start the season in St. Pete."
The rest of Chip Ganassi's four entries weren't so close to the top of the times, with two-time defending series champion Dario Franchitti clocking in 11th fastest. Graham Rahal and rookie Charlie Kimball were 14th and 20th, respectively.
"I think we struggled from the moment we got here," said Franchitti, who crashed in practice during the 2010 Barber race meeting. "Scott has been fine, but we need to work on our setup. It's up to myself and the engineers on the Target team to get this figured out."
Servia drove for Newman/Haas in 2005, finishing second in the Champ Car World Series for Carl Haas' team. But the native of Catalonia hasn't been able to land a full-time ride in the unified IndyCar Series until now.
"I'm very happy with the team and myself," Servia said. "When you are a year out of the car, of course you still think you can drive but it is just so great knowing it is true. There is still a lot to come from myself and from the car. We progressed big stages to get where we are and there is still more.
"Everybody is super motivated," he added. "James was super helpful all day yesterday and today with him knowing the track and I really hope we can be teammates."
Second-year Indy car driver Takuma Sato rounded out the top six for KV Racing Technology, while Marco Andretti (eighth) was the top runner for the reconstituted Andretti Autosport team. Danica Patrick was 12th overall while the team's new recruit Mike Conway crashed on the second day.
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesSebastien Bourdais is looking for a deal to run the road and street races on the IndyCar Series circuit.
With the exception of Hinchcliffe, IndyCar's 2011 rookie class struggled on the tricky Barber road course, with five of the six first-year drivers on hand bringing up the rear of the 24 entries. JR Hildebrand damaged his Panther Racing entry late on Day 1 and was not able to take part in the second day of testing.
Four-time Champ Car series champion Sebastien Bourdais, running for Dale Coyne Racing, was 18th fastest. The Frenchman said he is close to an agreement to run the road racing portion of the championship for Coyne.
"We started, really, from nowhere. The car was really bad and we had a bit of a tough time," Bourdais said. "But towards the end, we started to get a little closer. We still have a lot of work to do, but it's encouraging because we made some progress."
Tipped as a championship favorite, Power said he's not surprised by the closeness of the IndyCar field in testing.
"I think this will be the toughest season in history -- it's already shaping up to be that way," the Australian said. "There are a lot of good drivers in good cars and maybe some good drivers in not-so-good cars. It's great to see a whole field of good drivers and there's not one person that shouldn't be out there."
The opening race of the 2011 IndyCar Series from St. Petersburg, Fla., will be broadcast on ABC on March 27.