Ganassi gang finds speed Friday

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The timing screens on Carb Day 2014 looked a lot like Carb Day 2012 as Target Chip Ganassi Racing paced the action at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Like two years ago, the Ganassi drivers struggled in qualifying, with Scott Dixon leading the four-car attack in 11th place. But the cars came to life in race trim, with Tony Kanaan and Dixon running 1-2 in the final hourlong practice session of the month.

Kanaan ran 227.838 mph in his Dallara-Chevrolet with Dixon close behind at 227.773.

"We feel good about it, but we want to be there when it counts, which is on Sunday," said defending Indianapolis 500 winner Kanaan, who will line up 16th on the grid. "We worked pretty hard together to make up for our Saturday qualifying. We showed a little bit of that Monday after qualifying, and today.

"It feels good to be up there, but to be honest, lap times don't count for anything today," Kanaan added. "We ran a lot in traffic and I'd say I'm pretty happy about it."

Dixon downplayed similarities to 2012, when he and then-teammate Dario Franchitti struggled in practice and qualified midfield but emerged as pacesetters on Carb Day after receiving improved Honda engines.

"The 9 car feels really good and obviously the 10 car [Kanaan] was very quick this morning as well," said Dixon, who with his team added a Pit Stop Challenge victory to their résumé Friday. "The cars were very consistent, and downforce-wise we were able to maneuver through some of the traffic. The race cars have been good, and I think we just concentrated too much on the race cars and then when we made the switch to qualifying, we had to back up on a lot of things to get a lot of the speed of it.

"What's different this year is that throughout the week in practice when everyone was running full fuel, we were always pretty high up," he added. "I think the majority of the time we were in the top six. It's not like we miraculously found a ton of speed -- that year was different. Honda brought a different spec, which gained the speed."

Townsend Bell, who frequently serves as an expert analyst for NBC Sports Network's IndyCar Series broadcasts, was third fastest on Friday and the last driver over 227 mph. Helio Castroneves was fourth at 226.187 mph.

"I feel good," said Castroneves, who will seek a record-tying fourth Indianapolis victory Sunday. "We had great pit stops, I felt really good in traffic, and now it's time to go. Right now I feel the biggest threat is myself. We just need to take it easy and be there in the end."

Asked if he was the man to beat on Sunday, Castroneves paused before responding: "I think so. I'm not sure about the other, but I'm sure the others know, too."

Sunday's race is expected to be the closest and most competitive in the 103-year history of the Indianapolis 500. The spread in qualifying speeds was just 3.1 mph, and Friday's practice produced a difference of just 5.6 mph between the fastest and slowest cars.

Last year's race produced a record 68 lead changes, and the drivers expect the field to remain in a close pack throughout the three-hour contest.

"I'm pretty happy with my car, especially in traffic," said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was sixth fastest but missed the last 20 minutes of the session as his Andretti Autosport crew and Chevrolet engineers investigated a potential electrical problem in the No. 28 car.

"But it's tough out there. You reach a point in the corner and the car just takes off. A lot of guys are struggling out there with understeer."

Rookie Sage Karam demonstrated that, sliding up the track in his Ganassi/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing entry and grazing the Turn 4 wall before making a nice save.

Two-time pole winner Ed Carpenter was 13th fastest Friday at 224.898 mph, focusing on what he can improve on from a year ago when he finished 10th after starting from the point, just as he will Sunday.

"If anything, I'm a little more relaxed this year than last year," Carpenter said. "That's probably the biggest thing -- being more prepared to manage the whole week leading up to it. For the race, I feel like we are more prepared than last year. You learn things through that process.

"Helio is going for his fourth win, and it's a big deal for him," he added. "Roger [Penske] and that whole team is hard to beat here, and the Ganassi guys are pros. Andretti's cars are great. And you can't count out guys like Josef Newgarden who has been fast.

"It's really an amazingly competitive field, and it will take a perfect race from someone to get it done, in my opinion."