Happy was happiest in Happy Hour Saturday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway.
Kevin Harvick, whose nickname is “Happy,” was the fastest driver in Saturday’s final practice for Sunday’s The Profit at CNBC 500.
In 29 laps around the one-mile flat track at PIR, Harvick recorded a fast lap of 136.960 mph (at 26.285 seconds) to pace the field in the one-hour session.
It was a good tune-up for Harvick, who will start Sunday’s race on the inside of the seventh row. Harvick has been one of the most successful drivers at PIR during his career. In 22 starts, Harvick has four Sprint Cup wins, seven top-five and 11 top-10 finishes.
Rookie Kyle Larson was second-fastest at 136.596 mph, followed by Ryan Newman (136.508), Kurt Busch (136.503) and Jeff Gordon (136.374).
Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sixth fastest (136.338), followed by seventh through 10th fastest Jamie McMurray (136.302), Joey Logano (136.297), Brian Vickers (136.250) and Carl Edwards (136.235). Edwards is the defending winner of Sunday’s race.
Perhaps wanting to save his car for Sunday’s race, not to mention he’ll be without crew chief Paul Wolfe (flew back to North Carolina early Saturday to be with his wife for the birth of the couple’s first child), pole-sitter Brad Keselowski’s fastest lap was 20th on the grid (135.905).
Joe Nemechek (133.146) and Reed Sorensen (131.492) were the slowest drivers in the session.
Only 41 of the 43 cars qualified for Sunday’s race took part in Saturday’s final practice. Sitting out were Blake Koch and 72-year-old Morgan Shepherd.
Drivers who failed to qualify for Sunday’s race were Landon Cassill, Dave Blaney and Josh Wise.
For a series that opened 2017 with just eight teams following KV Racing Technology shuttering, to have a 50 percent increase to kick the number up to 12 teams in not even a 12-month window is an astronomical sign of progress for the championship.
Only Carlin, of the quartet, will be making its IndyCar debut at next season’s opening round at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March.
Yes, the car count may be similar with 22 cars expected full-time and a 23rd and/or 24th running occasionally. But the fact the cars are spread among a greater variety of teams speaks better for the series’ diversity and point of entry.
The fact these teams all come in when there’s a new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit coming, that could all but level the playing field save for the manufacturer difference between Chevrolet and Honda, is no coincidence either. Cost of entry isn’t cheap, of course, but it’s still a viable option for all of them – particularly with the common kit set to be used over the next three years.
“Obviously we’re very proud of this,” Jay Frye, INDYCAR’s President of Competition and Operations, told NBC Sports. “It’s been a long process the last year and a half. We’ve worked with some more than others. But the process is with the five-year plan. They’re part of it.
“Them all coming in speaks to their ownership and their leadership, which will create great sustainability.”
Frye hailed each of these four programs’ efforts and methodical building to get to this point. The cliff notes version for each new entrant is below:
Carlin: Trevor Carlin’s team has been a staple of the European junior formula, winning countless races and championships over decades and with a “who’s who” list of alumni that have made it to Formula 1 and IndyCar. Established Indy Lights program in 2015, won the title in 2016 and won the Freedom 100 in 2017.
Harding Racing: Mike Harding’s Harding Group has been a sponsor of the sport and took the bigger plunge this year with Gabby Chaves in a three-race program. Top-10 in Indianapolis 500 debut planted the seed for further great runs at Texas and Pocono, and hiring of Brian Barnhart from INDYCAR as new team president solidifies team’s intent to compete at the highest level.
Michael Shank Racing: Longtime driver-turned-owner Mike Shank had an Atlantic team, and has run his successful sports car operation for nearly two decades. False start in IndyCar occurred in 2012 with chassis purchase but no engine deal, but renewed opportunity arose in 2017 in tandem with Andretti Autosport at Indianapolis 500, before chance to build with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has occurred for multi-year deal starting in 2018.
Juncos Racing: From almost nothing, Ricardo Juncos came to America from Argentina and built up team into a Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires powerhouse, winning Pro Mazda and Indy Lights titles along the way before sweeping both titles in the same year in 2017 with Victor Franzoni (Pro Mazda) and Kyle Kaiser (Indy Lights). Made debut at Indianapolis 500 with two cars, and both finished.
“They’ve all done it the right way,” Frye explained. “Whether it’s Trevor, with the way he’s done his programs and now his graduation, Harding with some races to get integrated, Michael, with the way he operates his sports car programs, and getting his feet wet, and Ricardo the same way with his Mazda (Road to Indy) success, they’ve all participated. It’s a big step, but we couldn’t be more pleased and proud. It adds a lot of excitement.”
Carlin will have a mix of its Indy Lights and European personnel in addition to some recently acquired IndyCar veterans as part of its engineering staff and overall crew, continuing at its Delray Beach, Fla. U.S. base with a satellite home in Indianapolis part-time. The aspiration of making it to IndyCar has been something of a lifelong dream for Trevor Carlin, the Brit who now sees the British team flying the flag in North America with two Carlin alumni in Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball behind the wheel of the two Chevrolet-powered entries.
Harding has ramped up its involvement by coming to Speedway, Ind., moving into what had been Ed Carpenter Racing’s shop on Main Street. The Barnhart acquisition brings him back together with Al Unser Jr., the team’s driving coach, after the two enjoyed a pair of Indianapolis 500 victories working together in 1992 (Galles Racing) and 1994 (Team Penske). The underrated and oft-overlooked Gabby Chaves, the 2014 Indy Lights champion, will spearhead this team’s effort behind-the-wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Rumors of a second car persist but haven’t fully developed as it sits.
While these two teams jump in for full-time efforts, both Shank and Juncos will go forward in a methodical part-time manner this year with the plan to build towards more in 2019 and beyond.
Shank’s six-race effort will run in tandem with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in a technical partnership, with Jack Harvey in the team’s No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda. With Shank also still running his two-car Acura NSX GT3 program in IMSA out of his shop in Columbus, Ohio, the plan is to find six IndyCar race weekends that don’t conflict. With only Iowa and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in July conflicting and with Shank preferring to focus on a road and street course program in IndyCar outside of the Indianapolis 500, that won’t be a problem to ensure a conflict-free campaign (St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Indianapolis 500 have been announced).
Juncos Racing also runs multiple programs, with the team’s excellent MRTI program rolling into 2018. The trio of Carlos Cunha, Robert Megennis and Rinus VeeKay has been announced for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires with the new Tatuus PM-18 Mazda, one of them hoping to emulate last year’s champion Franzoni or past Pro Mazda champs for Juncos Spencer Pigot and Conor Daly – both of whom made it to IndyCar – in the same position. While its Indy Lights drivers haven’t been announced, Franzoni is due to don the Soul Red colors on a Juncos entry once Mazda announces it and Nico Dapero is all-but-set to continue for a sophomore year. Kaiser has a four-race IndyCar program, the month of May confirmed with two others to be announced, and the team working on further opportunities.
For those observers who have paid attention to these teams in other championships, the caliber of operations from all of them can’t be denied. With their preparation, persistence and acquisition of talent, they’ll be an intriguing part of the 2018 IndyCar season, and laying the groundwork for successful futures.
“They didn’t just say we’re here now; this has been building for the last year and a half, with where we as a series were going to go and what we’re going to do over ’18, ’19 and ’20,” Frye said. “As a former team principal and owner, knowing what a plan is gives them some comfort. And they’re part of the process – they have great ideas and they’ve accomplished a lot in other series where we can learn from them.
“All these groups are legitimate talented teams who want to play at a high level, and be here at the right time. They want to support and grow our program while growing theirs. They’re all a pleasure to deal with.
“Having four new teams, most with multiple entries, is really exciting for us. There hasn’t been that in IndyCar in some time. And that means for Dallara, there’s a lot of new cars and chassis being ordered.
“When you look at the overall platform, there are some good indicators. And as you’ve read from their quotes, it’s a lifetime process or achievement they wanted to do for a long time. The opportunity is there now to participate.”