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U.S. drivers solid on practice laps

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Nine American drivers were on the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway practicing on Tuesday, with several posting top times in preparation for the Indianapolis 500 on May 27.

Josef Newgarden and Bryan Clauson, rookie drivers for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, have been fast through the first four days of practice.

Veterans Townsend Bell, Ed Carpenter and Ryan Hunter-Reay know the track well.

J.R. Hildebrand nearly put the questions about American drivers to rest last year before crashing on the final lap and allowing Dan Wheldon to cruise to victory.

Then, there is the Marco Andretti-Graham Rahal rivalry.

Clauson, who was the pole sitter for the Indy Lights race last year, could barely picture what a win would mean for him or another American driver. The last U.S. driver to win was Sam Hornish, Jr., in 2006.

"It's one of the biggest races in the world, definitely the biggest race in America," Clauson said. "We want the Americans to shine on this stage. We all want to be the American hero who wins the 500."

The Andretti-Rahal rivalry has escalated this season. A mutual dislike grew when Rahal caused an accident with Andretti at Long Beach last month.

Reviews showed Rahal was guilty of blocking and initiating avoidable contact, IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield said. Andretti's car hit the back of Rahal's, launched briefly into the air and spun into a tire barrier. IndyCar placed Rahal on probation for six races for his role in the accident.

Rahal said the rivalry is good for the sport. The two sat next to each other at a podium after Tuesday's practice and co-existed, but did not greet each other.

"I don't know that there's any love lost between the two of us," Rahal said. "It's the way it goes. It's the way it's always been between our two families, and I'm sure it will continue that way."

Rahal added fuel to the rivalry on Tuesday.

"I think a month after the incident, he's still bringing it up in his blog," Rahal said. "That's a maturity issue."

Andretti had the fastest lap, Rahal was fourth, Ryan Hunter-Reay was fifth and Charlie Kimball sixth as Americans took four of the top six spots in Tuesday's practice.

Rahal believes it is important that the American who wins has a recognizable name, such as Rahal or Andretti, to give the sport the brand name he believes it needs. He believes several have a chance.

"I think it's definitely important," he said. "This is, I think, the greatest American race there is. I think it's important that one of us do well, but to be honest, I think there's a lot of us that could do well. There's a lot of guys running up front, and a lot of them are Americans."

Clauson had the 10th-fastest lap on Tuesday.

"I think it's shown in our performance that to this point this month, these guys have worked hard, maybe harder than anybody," he said. "Our cars seem to be pretty quick. We'll see if we can keep it up throughout the month. We feel like we've got some more to trim out of them to make them even faster."

Clauson isn't so sure a big name is needed.

"Being the grass roots guy, the guy that came from the local dirt tracks around Indiana - to be that guy in this situation, it's the underdog role."

Newgarden has been fast all season, but hasn't placed better than 11th in a race.

"The shame of it has been we've had speed everywhere. We've been quick with the car, but haven't been able to translate that into good finishes. I think we've just had some bad luck and learned a lot of things, all of us as a team."

Newgarden respects the other drivers and believes the diversity is good for the sport, but he understands why Americans want one of their own to step up.

"It is important," he said. "Some fans have been discouraged that we haven't had successful Americans in a little while in IndyCar. That's what they want to see. I think having Americans that are strong - this is America's racetrack here."