Indianapolis 500 - Qualifying

A look at the Americans in the Indy 500 field

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It’s been six years since an American has claimed victory at the Indianapolis 500. Back in 2006, Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr. beat Marco Andretti to the checkered flag by .0635 of a second in the second-closest finish in Indy history.

Since then, two Brits (Dario Franchitti – 2007, 2010, 2012; the late Dan Wheldon – 2011), a New Zealander (Scott Dixon – 2008), and a Brazilian (Helio Castroneves – 2009) have drank the milk at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But in 2013, the Stars and Stripes may be flying high once more. There are 11 American drivers in the field of 33 for this year’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing, and four of them – including pole sitter and Indianapolis native Ed Carpenter (pictured) – are within the first three rows of the grid.

Let’s take a look at the homegrown talent that will be out for racing immortality this coming weekend at Indy:

20-Ed Carpenter (Ed Carpenter Racing/Chevrolet/Pole Sitter)

One of the best oval racers in the IZOD IndyCar Series, Carpenter was third with 20 laps to go in last year’s race before a spin ruined his chances for an upset. Now, with his hometown fans cheering him on, the down-to-Earth Hoosier is aiming for a storybook win.

25-Marco Andretti (Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet/Starting 3rd)

Last year’s “500” ended in frustration for Andretti, who led 59 laps but crashed out late while in the Top 10. But 2013 has been a renaissance season so far for him, and he stands a good chance of carrying over that momentum to the track that has both delighted and bedeviled his family.

2-A.J. Allmendinger (Team Penske/Chevrolet/Starting 5th)

The former Champ Car and NASCAR full-timer has the speed to contend for a win. But it’s still his first Indy 500 and whether you’re with the almighty Team Penske or a low-money operation, it’s a lot to handle. Still, if ‘Dinger stays out of trouble, you never know…

1-Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet/Starting 7th)

He’s the series champion and he’s with a great team, so you can’t count out Hunter-Reay. But his track record hasn’t been all that great at Indy. He’s never finished higher than sixth (2008) and in his five career starts, he’s had DNFs in three of them – the most recent of those came in last year’s event.

4-J.R. Hildebrand (Panther Racing/Chevrolet/Starting 10th)

After losing the “500” in dramatic fashion in 2011, Hildebrand was set to contend once more last year before an ill-timed caution following a pit stop ended his hopes. With four runner-up finishes in the last five years at Indy, Panther knows how to get around the Brickyard. Hildebrand can definitely have a say in the outcome.

83-Charlie Kimball (Chip Ganassi Racing/Honda/Starting 19th)

The third-year driver may need a break or two to get up to the front, but he does have something to build off of after his Top-10 run at Indy last year. It’s also been clear that Kimball has improved significantly over his time in the series. Results are now expected, not just hoped for, from him.

60-Townsend Bell (Panther Racing/Chevrolet/Starting 22nd)

NBC Sports Network’s very own had a tough time in qualifying this past weekend, but he’s a veteran around the Brickyard and has done well there in the past (Best finish: 4th, 2009). Last year, he claimed a Top-10 finish at IMS and he would appear to be one of those drivers that can sneak up and make an impact.

21-Josef Newgarden (Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing/Honda/Starting 25th)

The Tennessee native was the fastest second-day qualifier on Sunday, and if his team can give him a good car in traffic, he might be able to break into the lead pack.

15-Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing/Honda/Starting 26th)

The son of team owner and 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal is setting his sights on joining his Dad as a winner of the biggest race in the world. That would make the Rahals the second father-son combo to pull it off (Al Unser and Al Unser Jr. combined for six Indy wins in their respective careers).

41-Conor Daly (A.J. Foyt Racing/Honda/Starting 31st)

Daly has been along the path to Formula One recently, but has appeared to consider an IndyCar career as well. He’s had to overcome a practice crash and other issues to earn a spot on the grid, and you’d have to think that a steady Top 15 finish would be a great result in his first “500.”

91-Buddy Lazier (Lazier Partners Racing/Chevrolet/Starting 32nd)

In his 17th Indy start, Lazier may be the longest of long-shots. But the diehards know that he won’t give up and he’ll use every bit of knowledge he has about Indy to try and make some noise.

Nico Rosberg’s F1 retirement came as no surprise to Lewis Hamilton

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Race winner Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP shakes hands with second place finisher and F1 World Drivers Champion Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP on the podium  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton says he was not surprised by Mercedes teammate and Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg’s retirement announcement on Friday.

Hamilton lost out to Rosberg in the battle for the 2016 drivers’ championship, finishing five points shy of a fourth title in Abu Dhabi last weekend.

Rosberg announced on Friday ahead of the FIA prize giving in Vienna that he would be retiring from F1 with immediate effect, sending shockwaves through the sport.

However, Hamilton said that the news came as little surprise to him, given he has worked with Rosberg throughout his career and knows the German well.

“The sport will miss him but I wish him all the best,” Hamilton said at the press conference in Vienna, as quoted by F1i.

“I’m sure it was a surprise to many people. I’m probably one of the many people that it was not a surprise for but that’s because I’ve known him for a long, long time. But this is motor racing.

“This is the first time he’s won in 18 years, hence why it was not a surprise that he decided to stop. But also he’s got a family to focus on and probably wants to have more children. Formula 1 takes so much of your time.”

Rosberg’s decision brings an end to his fierce rivalry with Hamilton during their four years together as Mercedes teammates.

The two enjoyed a number of clashes both on- and off-track, but Hamilton said that he would miss not having Rosberg to go up against.

“We started karting when we were 13 and we would always talk about being champions,” Hamilton said.

“When I joined this team Nico was there which was something we spoke about when we were kids.

“It’s going to be very, very strange and for sure it will be sad to not have him in the team next year.”

Verstappen, Mercedes joke about vacant seat after Rosberg’s retirement

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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In the wake of Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement announcement on Friday in Vienna, nearly every Formula 1 driver has been named as a possible replacement for the World Champion at Mercedes in 2017.

Fernando Alonso? Sebastian Vettel? Pascal Wehrlein? Esteban Ocon? Or how about Max Verstappen?

Ah, Verstappen. The young upstart who has turned the F1 world on its head since making his debut as a fresh-faced 17-year-old in 2015. Fast-forward to the present day, and he is the youngest ever grand prix winner (and still very fresh-faced).

While a move to Mercedes is, in reality, out of the question for 2017 given the nature of his Red Bull contract and status as one of F1’s hottest prospects, Verstappen was more than happy to engage in some banter on Twitter with the German manufacturer.

Verstappen notably had the chance to join Mercedes’ junior program back in 2014, but decided on a move to Red Bull instead after it promised him an F1 drive with Toro Rosso for 2015.

Stunned racing world reacts to Rosberg’s retirement on social media

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates with his wife Vivian Sibold and his team after finishing second and securing the F1 World Drivers Championship at the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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It is fair to say that nobody saw this coming.

Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from Formula 1 just six days after clinching his maiden world championship has already sent shockwaves through the racing world.

To see a professional athlete bow out in such fashion is rare, particularly when they’re nowhere near retirement age. Alas, it seems that one world title was enough for Nico.

Here’s a round-up of how the racing world has reacted to Rosberg’s retirement on Twitter.

Smith: After his bombshell, who will replace Nico Rosberg at Mercedes?

Nico Rosberg 2016 World Championship Victory Behind-the-Scenes Imagery
© Mercedes AMG Petronas
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The driver market for the 2017 Formula 1 season has been a regular talking point on MotorSportsTalk for the past few months.

‘Silly season’, as it is affectionally known, was expected to be particularly crazy ahead of the 2017 season given the number of drivers who were going to be out of contract. Daniel Ricciardo told me in pre-season it was going to be “badass.”

But things went quiet: Max Verstappen got an early promotion to Red Bull; Kimi Raikkonen got another year at Ferrari; Sergio Perez decided to stay at Force India. By the end of the racing season, just three seats remained at Sauber and Manor.

And then Nico Rosberg dropped his bombshell.

Ahead of the FIA prizegiving in Vienna on Friday night, Rosberg announced to the world that, less than six days after being crowned World Champion, he would be ending his racing career with immediate effect.

This is an enormous shock to the F1 paddock and the sporting world as a whole. While it is hardly rare for athletes to quit while on top, it is for them to do so when they’ve still got a number of years left in them. Rosberg is 31. Michael Schumacher didn’t retire until he was 43.

I wrote on Monday in the wake of Rosberg’s title success that one world title might be enough for him. He’s not wired the same way as the Lewis Hamiltons or Fernando Alonsos of this world, to whom three and two World Championships respectively seem an injustice. Rosberg is World Champion forever now; that won’t change no matter how many more times he wins it.

Now Nico gets the chance to be a father and a husband full-time. To him, family is everything. His wife, Vivian, was in all of his post-race shots, celebrating the world title success, while little Alaia is just one year old; it’s a precious time for fathers.

In F1 though, the question now surrounds who will step into Rosberg’s shoes.

It’s time for Silly Season 2: Electric Boogaloo.

The two men who were perceived as being the natural successors to Hamilton and Rosberg at Mercedes were junior drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon. Both raced for Manor this year, making their F1 debuts, with Ocon impressing enough to get a seat with Force India for 2017. Wehrlein is still yet to be signed to a seat for next year.

If Mercedes wants a quick fix, then Wehrlein is a viable option. He is known to the team and has shown signs of pace, scoring just the second point in Manor’s seven-season history this season. However, Force India’s decision to pass on him and take Ocon surely raises doubt as to his suitability to the Mercedes seat.

Because what is now on offer for next season is the chance of a lifetime for the F1 grid. New regulations may be on the horizon for 2017, but Mercedes is expected to still be fighting at the front of the grid. It has enjoyed one of the most dominant spells in the long history of F1. Driver contracts may be in place, but they can be bought out if the price is right.

As one Twitter follower put it: “The hottest girl in school is without a prom date at the moment.”

So who might be the Prom King to this Prom Queen?

The immediate aftermath of the announcement has seen all of F1’s biggest names linked with the drive, including Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, both of whom enter the final year of their contracts in 2017 with McLaren and Ferrari respectively.

Both moved to their new teams at the end of 2014 as part of a long-term project to take them back to the front of the grid; both were left to endure trying 2016 campaigns that yielded not a single victory.

So could either make the move up? Frankly, the money would have to be staggering from Mercedes to get either out of their contract, particularly in Vettel’s case. And things haven’t exactly reached ‘Alonso level’ of frustrating and anger for the German at Maranello just yet.

The Red Bull boys are locked in for 2017 – although you’ve got to think that Mercedes is surely now feeling even more frustrated that it missed out on Verstappen three years ago – and should be in a position to mount a title challenge next year given the progress the team has made through this season. So again, a no-go really.

So instead, it would have to be a driver who is up-and-coming but currently mired in the midfield. Two drivers come to mind.

Firstly, there is Valtteri Bottas. The Finn was the breakout star of F1 in 2014 with Williams, taking a number of podium finishes, but has failed to reach such dizzying heights over the past two campaigns, scoring just one top-three result through 2016.

However, Bottas is still widely regarded as being a top talent, and is managed by Toto Wolff, who also happens to be Mercedes’ F1 chief. If the money is right to prize him away from Williams, Bottas could be a good fit.

Another possibility is Carlos Sainz Jr. Sainz had a hugely impressive campaign in 2016 with Toro Rosso, but there is no room for him to move up to Red Bull’s senior F1 operation for the foreseeable future with Verstappen and Ricciardo in place.

Sainz is currently slated for another year at Toro Rosso, but Red Bull must know deep down that keeping him at STR in the long-term will be an impossible task. So why not ask Mercedes to cough up the cash, while also freeing up a seat for GP2 champion Pierre Gasly in 2017?

You could also make a case for the likes of Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean, both of whom seem to be waiting for their ‘big shot’ in F1.

For Mercedes, it all boils down to its long-term plan. If it thinks Wehrlein is ready, he would be a sensible choice, although it would act as an enormous leap as he literally goes from the back of the grid to the front. Ocon would be in a similar boat, and Mercedes would need to pull him out of the Force India deal.

If Mercedes wants the best driver available, then surely Alonso and Vettel will be on its radar. But it would be more troublesome to hire them – plus the team has Lewis Hamilton to appease, who will be hungrier than ever for a fourth world title in 2017.

If Mercedes wants to take a shot on one of the midfield up-and-comers, then Bottas and Sainz are perhaps the best bets.

But it must be stressed that these are all ‘ifs.’

2016 has been a year packed with shocks and surprise. Rosberg’s retirement is really just the icing on the cake.