Varying goals for four Indy 500 rookies

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Final preparations are in the books for the quartet of rookies who will be making their Indianapolis 500 debuts this Sunday.

Only one of the four is contesting the full IZOD IndyCar Series season, Schmidt Peterson’s Tristan Vautier. Team Penske’s AJ Allmendinger is in the midst of his IndyCar return from a seven-year NASCAR sojourn, while Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly have had polar opposite IndyCar series debuts throughout the month of May.

Munoz starts second for the 500 after a whirlwind month of doing double duty for Andretti Autosport. His Firestone Indy Lights commitment for the month ended Friday when he led 27 laps in the Firestone Freedom 100, but fell from first to fourth on the last lap when Peter Dempsey, Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam all passed him.

Still, Munoz will be able to take what he learned into his IndyCar debut Sunday.

“I learned, really, that I can’t be leading going into the last lap. It’s like the death penalty,” Munoz joked during the post-race press conference.

For Allmendinger, who starts fifth in the No. 2 IZOD Chevrolet, a 500 debut is like a homecoming after his open-wheel hiatus.

“I’ve thought a lot about that. Honestly, maybe it’s my background and where I came from,” he said. “Daytona is special and believe me, I’d love to win the Daytona 500 one day. But we haven’t even gotten to Sunday yet and walking in this place, walking through Gasoline Alley and taking it all in – there’s nothing that comes close to it. It’s so special.”

Vautier starts 28th after a wicked qualifying run, where he was on the edge of adhesion and the limit of grip, hanging on for dear life. His pace was stunted by hitting the hard rev limiter on two of his four laps. It’s a far cry from when he made qualifying look easy in his first two races, at St. Petersburg and Barber, when he qualified in the Firestone Fast Six.

“We expected a tough qualifying because of the Long Beach engine change, so we couldn’t put a fresh engine in,” he said. “We had to make the most of it and maximize everything on the chassis. Considering that, it wasn’t so bad.”

Meanwhile, Daly – who spent Media Day with a check for all of $0.31 to equal his 31stt starting position – will have the thrill of a lifetime spending race day at Indianapolis on the grid, rather than a spectator, for the first time in his 21 years. A lifelong Hoosier, Daly is the son of Derek Daly, an ex-Formula One and IndyCar driver, and a six-time Indy 500 starter. Daly is balancing this race with a full season of GP3 in Europe.

“I know how much my heart races as a fan. So it will be pretty cool,” he said. “Now I’m part of this deal. Slowly walk around and see who I can see. Now I have my own program, and I’m ready to start race myself.”

Marco Andretti confident that fewer tests won’t hurt Andretti Autosport

Photo: IndyCar
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A small point of debate around the 2018 aero kit has been the manufacturer test days that took place through the Fall of 2017 and into the beginning of 2018. Chiefly, the debate has centered around teams who hadn’t participated in those manufacturer test days and if they’re starting the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season at a disadvantage as a result.

Team Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing, and A.J. Foyt Racing completed test days for Chevrolet, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing doing so for Honda.

That left teams like Andretti Autosport out of the mix, with some voicing concerns as a result.

However, in a press conference during testing at ISM Raceway last weekend, Marco Andretti explained that he thinks Andretti Autosport should be able to catch up on development, citing the team’s resources – they’re the only IndyCar team with four full-time cars in their stable – and the fact that everyone is still adapting to the new kit.

“I feel like it’s early enough days that, yes, we can catch up,” Andretti said at ISM Raceway. “When there is anything new, a new car, new aero kit, at-track days are huge. We can sim all these things we want. To really get out there and confirm what we’re learning back at the shop is another thing.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay during testing at ISM Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

Andretti continued, “Yeah, I don’t think we should look at it like we’re behind the eight ball. With a four-car team, that’s where we can use it to our benefit. So far so good.”

Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, echoed Andretti’s sentiments, adding that while the situation is not perfect, they will need to adapt to it in order to remain competitive.

“Any time you have a new car, to put it into perspective, we’re on track three days on a road course before we get to (the season open in St. Petersburg). That’s a very short amount of time. It’s obviously not ideal, but we’re just going to lace up our boots and get on with it. That’s all you can do.”

Andretti Autosport will have one more team test, at Sebring International Raceway later on in February, before the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

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