Helio Castroneves

SONOMA, Calif. – As the Friday morning sun continued to rise on the hills of Northern California, Indy cars returned to the racetrack for first practice of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on championship weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves (No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet) paced the field with a fast lap of 1 minute, 17.3298 seconds (111.031 mph), as the veteran turned just four laps but was quick enough to lead the 22-car group. He was followed by Marco Andretti (No. 27 Snapple Andretti Autosport Honda, 1:17.4611, 110.843 mph) and Graham Rahal (No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, 1:17.4976, 110.791).

CLICK HERE: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma practice 1 results

For Andretti, it was a small bright light at the end of a dark tunnel that has been the 2016 season. Mired in 17th in the point standings with only two top-10 finishes this season, the 29-year-old Andretti was pleased with the practice result but looking ahead.

“Pretty good, definitely happy with our pace here as a team,” said the third-generation driver. “We know what we’ve done all season’s not right, so we’re almost using this weekend as a test session. I think if we hit on something, I’ll be really optimistic for next season.”

Andretti has struggled to score the positive results he expected in his 11th season of Verizon IndyCar Series competition, but the Pennsylvanian will look to salvage a top result at the site of his first career win from his rookie season in 2006.

Championship contenders and Team Penske teammates Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Hewlett Packard Chevrolet, 1:17.8496) and Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet, 1:18.0804) showed modestly, running 10th and 17th, respectively.

Pagenaud leads Power by 43 points heading into the weekend as he pursues his first career championship. With double race points awarded in Sunday’s season finale, the title will be up for grabs.

Practice for the GoPro Grand Prix resumes later this afternoon, with a second session beginning at 5:45 p.m. ET and streaming live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com and the Verizon IndyCar Series Facebook page.

Verizon P1 Award qualifying airs live at 6 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN. The season-concluding race is also on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, starting at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday.