Rookie Carlos Munoz: Indy’s biggest surprise to date this year

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A little more than one month ago, only the most ardent of IndyCar observers had heard of, or really paid attention to, Andretti Autosport Indianapolis 500 rookie Carlos Munoz.

Now, mere days before the 97th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Colombian is probably the month of May’s biggest surprise.

Munoz really came on towards the end of last Indy Lights season driving for Andretti, posting a pair of wins in Edmonton and Fontana. He’s a championship favorite this season, with wins already at Barber and Long Beach and searching for his third in a row Friday in the Firestone Freedom 100.

Oh, and he starts second in the 500 on Sunday. It’s the same accomplishment as his countryman, Juan Pablo Montoya, achieved in 2000 – Montoya went on to win the race.

Munoz is the fourth driver to race in both IndyCar and Indy Lights at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same month. He had his first IndyCar test at Texas in March, and described his preparation for the month of May during the Long Beach weekend.

“I had had a really good day (in Texas), and I got very comfortable in the car,” Munoz told me at Long Beach. “I knew we had to go step-by-step; learn the track, learn the car and everything. We got faster and faster but I knew we had a really good car for the Indy 500.”

Easy for him to say at the time, but him following through in reality was a tough ask. So far, Munoz has passed with flying colors.

Running an aggressive line through Turn 1, Munoz has flirted with disaster with entering late and then diving underneath the white line. But it appears to be working. He’s stepped into a car, the No. 26 Unistraw Chevrolet, that has been among – if not the – quickest of the five-car Andretti armada this month.

“In the beginning, I was really nervous about it. But once I was in the car, everything was clear,” Munoz said after qualifying for the 500. “It seems easier on the TV. For four laps you have to be really precise each lap. If you turn a little bit later or a little bit earlier, the whole car is different.”

Thursday marked the first time this month Munoz shifted back to his regular car in Indy Lights. He qualified second there, as well, behind Sage Karam. The focus Friday shifts solely to Lights, even though there’s Carb Day practice for IndyCar beforehand.

“We had so much fun last year in that race because we were overtaking all the time,” Munoz said Thursday. “But I am going one-by-one. I am focusing first with Indy Lights – then I will focus on the Indy 500.”

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.