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.”

IndyCar 2017 driver review: All posts, one place

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In case you missed any of MotorSportsTalk’s extensive 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series driver-by-driver reviews on NBCSports.com, we’ve combined them all into one post.

See the full rankings below. Of the 38 drivers that raced at least once this year, 23 of them ran anywhere from six races to the full 17-race schedule, and got a full review. Drivers who competed in four or fewer races were packaged into the “remaining part-timers” post.

1. Josef Newgarden
2. Simon Pagenaud
3. Scott Dixon
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Will Power
6. Graham Rahal
7. Alexander Rossi
8. Takuma Sato
9. Ryan Hunter-Reay
10. Tony Kanaan
11. Max Chilton
12. Marco Andretti
13. James Hinchcliffe
14. Ed Jones
15. JR Hildebrand
16. Carlos Munoz
17. Charlie Kimball
18. Conor Daly
19. Mikhail Aleshin
20. Spencer Pigot / 22. Ed Carpenter
21. Sebastien Bourdais / 25. Esteban Gutierrez
23-24, 26-38. All the rest