Clint Bowyer’s night begins with spinning Larson, ends with car on fire

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Going into the weekend at Richmond International Raceway, Clint Bowyer said he looked forward to putting last year’s race manipulation controversy behind him with a great result on one of his favorite tracks.

But apparently the racing gods had something different in mind for the Michael Waltrip Racing driver in tonight’s Toyota Owners 400.

On the first lap of the race, Bowyer sought to take the lead from pole sitter Kyle Larson when the inside lane opened up going into Turn 1. But instead, Bowyer got into the back of Larson and spun him out, forcing him to go on a climb from the back that is currently ongoing (he was 20th at halfway).

“I didn’t mean to do that,” Bowyer said dejectedly over his team radio. “I got under him and he turned right back down.”

Bowyer would settle down and run in the Top 5 up to the Lap 40 competition yellow. But on his next green flag stint, he faded out of the Top 10 before pitting under green at Lap 95 for a tire going down.

Just four laps later, the caution came out for debris on the frontstretch, causing Bowyer to sarcastically thank NASCAR over the radio:

That left Bowyer all the way at the tail end of the field, but his night would get worse. On Lap 161, Bowyer hit the pits under caution with his right-front wheel well on fire.

The flames ultimately caused the right-front portion of his Toyota’s nose piece to cave in and then melt off. With the damage severe, the team chose to go to the garage.

“First of all, I want to say sorry to Kyle,” Bowyer said about the first-lap incident with Larson to Fox Sports. “I’m a big fan of his, he’s been doing a great job, and I hate that it happened on the first lap. Him and [Brad Keselowski] kind of spun their tires, I got a big run on him, and he moved up.

“I was like, ‘Here we go to the lead’, and at that time, he cut down and I flat got into him. I’m glad he didn’t get in the wall there. The last thing I want to do was ruin his day.”

He then dubbed his tire problems as his “payback” and admitted that he wasn’t expecting such a poor performance.

“We had a good car in practice,” he said. “I have absolutely no idea what happened tonight. I did not see this coming. I really though we were gonna have a shot at contending for the win tonight. It’s kind of the story of our year so far.”

Button well-prepared, jovial ahead of Formula 1 comeback

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Jenson Button says he feels well-prepared to make his one-off return to Formula 1 in this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix despite not yet driving the 2017-spec McLaren car.

Button stepped back from his McLaren seat at the end of 2016 and looked to have made his last F1 appearance, having agreed to remain with the team as an ambassador and reserve driver if requied.

The 2009 F1 world champion was called into action by McLaren following Fernando Alonso’s shock decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500, skipping the Monaco Grand Prix in order to do so.

Button made his first appearance in the F1 paddock since last November’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Wednesday, facing questions in the FIA’s pre-race press conference which he answered with a mix of good humor and, at times, sarcasm.

One of the biggest concerns surrounding Button’s return has been his level of preparation, with the Briton turning down the offer to test the MCL32 car last month following the Bahrain Grand Prix – meaning his first taste of F1’s new-style 2017 cars will come on Thursday in Monaco practice.

Button isn’t worried, though, believing the additional running in Bahrain wouldn’t have benefitted him a great deal given the drastically different nature of the circuit.

“Preparation has been good, apart from I haven’t driven the car with these new regulations,” Button acknowledged.

“So it’s not perfect, but the option was to do half a day in Bahrain which I thought was absolutely useless for me to do, completely different type of circuit.

“I said to the team I think it’s best if I do a few days in the simulator. Obviously as drivers we love the simulator, so I was raring to go… I spent a lot of time in the simulator just getting a feel for it.

“It’s been interesting. Most of the stuff’s the same, but there are a few things that are obviously different. Different in regulations and it changes from year to year, technology and what have you.

“A few things to learn, but it’s still a racing car. Just got to get used to [the car] being a bit wider.”

Button’s return comes at a time when McLaren is at a low point – quite literally – as it sits at the bottom of the constructors’ championship with a score of zero following the first five races of the season.

Much of the team’s struggles have stemmed from its Honda power unit, which has lacked both reliability and performance so far this season, leaving Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne ailing in races.

Monaco is set to present McLaren its best chance yet of points, with the tight and twisting nature of the street course making any frailties on the engine side seem less severe.

Yet for Button, there is no pressure to get McLaren off the mark in 2017 and overhaul Sauber, who recently moved off the foot of the teams’ table following Pascal Wehrlein’s run to eighth in Spain.

“Definitely not,” Button said when asked if he felt under any pressure for his comeback. “I’m very relaxed. Very excited, actually. It’s interesting coming back for one grand prix. It being Monaco, it’s very special.

“I’ve won here before, I’ve lived here for 17 years. I’ve had some really good experiences here. It’s exciting. But I don’t feel any pressure, not at all. I will get in the car and do the best job I can, that’s what I’m here to do.

“And everything I do in life is the same. You want to be competitive, you want to be getting the best out of yourself and the best out of the equipment and the team you are working with. So that hasn’t changed.

“The car seemed to be working well in Barcelona in qualifying. Fernando did a good job, but I think it still proves the car itself is working well. I drove in the simulator and I drove the upgrade, which I was misquoted on, by the way. I drove that upgrade and it was a definite improvement.

“There are more improvements here as well. If it’s all straightforward this weekend then we should be reasonably competitive.”

Different goals, objectives set for 2017’s Indy 500 extra drivers

Alonso (29) and Montoya (22) headline Indy one-off drivers. Photo: IndyCar
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This year more than any other in the last four or five years, there are more Indianapolis-only entries than normal as the full-season field is only 21 cars, leaving more than a third of the field for the Indianapolis 500 comprised of likely single-race entries. Once Sebastien Bourdais was hurt, it provided an opportunity in one of those cars as well.

Within these 13 drivers, there’s two past Indianapolis 500 champions (Juan Pablo Montoya, Buddy Lazier), three of the four rookies including that one (Fernando Alonso, Jack Harvey, Zach Veach), the eternally savvy Oriol Servia, fan favorite Pippa Mann, young guns Spencer Pigot, Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam, and the driver making a comeback after six years in Jay Howard. And then, there was James Davison who got the call as Bourdais’ injury replacement.

All of them have different goals and objectives for this year’s race, given their respective team scenarios.

Here’s a look at the dozen drivers who are competing either part-time this year or only at Indianapolis who look to play spoiler on Sunday. The best speeds for all except Davison were done with qualifying level boost (he only drove on Monday) and the lap counts are totaled prior to Friday’s Carb Day activity.

Rolling into Indy has got Fernando Alonso like… Photo: IndyCar

29-Fernando Alonso
McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda
Engineer: Eric Bretzman
Strategist: Michael Andretti
Best Speed this month: 231.827 (5th)
Total Laps: 452
Starts: 5th (231.300)
Indy 500 Record: Rookie

The man who has dominated the headlines this month since his shock announcement, Alonso’s taken to the Brickyard rather well in all phases. On paper for the race, he’s well positioned because he has been provided an all-star crew around him for a one-off entry. In Bretzman, he has the engineer who guided Scott Dixon to most of his career success; in Michael Andretti, he has a guy calling his race who is renowned for his calls; in Gil de Ferran, he has Andretti’s answer to Rick Mears (Penske) and Dario Franchitti (Ganassi) as an Indianapolis driving sherpa of sorts.

Yet it will be things such as the rolling start, being in the middle of a three-wide launch, coming in for yellow flag pit stops, and aggression on restarts that will define his race. Quoting the old axiom, practice and qualifying is one thing, but how Alonso handles the magic – and the pressure – that comes with race day is his ultimate test, and the primary reason he signed up for this odyssey in the first place.

Photo: IndyCar

16-Oriol Servia
Manitowoc Honda
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Engineer: Tom German
Strategist: Tom German
Best Speed This Month: 230.997 (17th)
Laps: 271
Starts: 12th (230.309)
Indy 500 Record: 4th (2012) best finish in 8 prior starts

It seems we write this every year, but Servia is the safest and most consistent bet among the one-off entries. Yet in recent years, he hasn’t had a result to show for it. Servia enters this year with the defending race-winning engineer in Tom German, and the team enters with the determination of bouncing back after a miserable month of May last year and a rough start to 2017. Other than an engine failure on Monday, it’s been a typically smooth, under-the-radar month from the Catalan, who will be one to watch Sunday in his 200th career race start.

Photo: IndyCar

22-Juan Pablo Montoya
Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet
Team Penske
Engineer: Raul Prados
Strategist: Ron Ruzewski
Best Speed This Month: 231.682 (7th)
Total Laps: 216
Starts: 18th (229.565)
Indy 500 Record: 2 wins (2000, 2015) from 4 prior starts

Going into the month, JPM was arguably the best positioned of the one-off entries, as this was announced late in 2016, with a driver who has nothing to lose in now his second start of the year. Additionally, unlike in each of the past three years, there were not multiple extra entries in the INDYCAR Grand Prix – this year, Montoya was the only extra car entered. That gave his crew a leg up among the other one-off crews, having had one extra race to get ready for Indy. While the usual “Penske perfect” and “effort equals results” mantras haven’t yet produced big results, it’d be a shock if Penske – and JPM – aren’t better on race day in traffic.

Photo: IndyCar

77-Jay Howard
Lucas Oil/Team One Cure Honda
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Team One Cure
Engineer: Chris Finch
Strategist: Chris Finch
Best Speed this month: 231.255 (11th)
Laps: 349
Starts: 20th (229.414)
Indy 500 Record: 30th (2011) best finish in 1 prior start

For Howard, coming back to the Speedway has gone respectably well to this point. SPM has again prepared a decent third car and Howard, despite being out of the game for six years, has reacclimatized better than perhaps anticipated. He’s a longshot, but has impressed with both speed and patience to this point. Quite possibly, his first career IndyCar top-10 is an achievable result in the car that features Team One Cure support, and NASCAR and IndyCar legend Tony Stewart as part of the entry.

Photo: IndyCar

24-Sage Karam
DRR Mecum Auctions Chevrolet
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
Engineer: Jeff Britton
Strategist: Dennis Reinbold
Best Speed this month: 230.134 (In Qualifying; Best Practice 228.159, 27th)
Total Laps: 317
Starts: 21st (229.380)
Indy 500 Record: 9th (2014) best finish in 3 prior starts

Perhaps the most polarizing driver in the field who could be IndyCar’s version of Roy McAvoy, “Tin Cup,” Karam boasts the combination of brash fearlessness, pure speed, and determination that often produces either big results or big repair bills. In 2014 he was lucky to get away with a spin on Carb Day without damage, then promptly starred in the pit stop competition and stormed from 31st to ninth in the race. He should have been at least co-rookie of the year, if not outright. But a devastating first lap crash followed in 2015 in a full Chip Ganassi Racing entry, and last year out of the spotlight back at DRR he carved from 23rd to fourth before colliding with another car and crashing out again. The team has opted to focus on race trim this year and Karam’s car appears a rocket in traffic. He’s more relaxed now, yet behind the wheel is so much fun to watch because of his unquestioned tenacity.

Al Unser Jr. and Gabby Chaves. Photo: IndyCar

88-Gabby Chaves
Harding Racing Chevrolet
Engineer: Matt Curry
Strategist: Larry Curry
Best Speed this month: 229.033 (26th)
Total Laps: 322
Starts: 25th (226.921)
Indy 500 Record: 16th (2015) best finish in 2 prior starts

Chaves has a great chance this year that he didn’t quite have last year. Whereas last year he was dumped from a ride he thought he had a fortnight before the season opener and was left scrambling to put a deal together for May with Dale Coyne Racing, Chaves has been working on this program for months and is the focal point around a new team that seems to have greater ambitions beyond just this May. Armed with a crew that includes team manager/competition director Larry Curry and son Matt Curry as engineer and two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr. as team driving instructor, the sky is the limit here. As Harding is one of several teams making its Indianapolis 500 debut, finishing in one piece is the main goal but with nothing to lose. Chaves is a sneaky good, clean driver who will look to re-establish himself as a force within this series.

Photo: IndyCar

50-Jack Harvey
Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport Honda
Engineer: Zach Eakin
Strategist: Tim Keene
Best Speed this month: 231.433
Total Laps: 379
Starts: 27th (225.742)
Indy 500 Record: Rookie

Andretti’s “other rookie” has his own point to prove after a month where he has had nearly all but the kitchen sink thrown at him with contact, engine failure, and an almost-crash in qualifying he got away with. Harvey’s got a past win on his resume at Indianapolis, with the Freedom 100 victory in 2015, and he knows enough now from the drafting practice he’s had to get comfortable in an IndyCar. Paired with Indy debutantes Shank, the Englishman’s big question is whether he’s race rusty, having not raced anything since his final start in Indy Lights in September 2015, and not having been in an oval race since Iowa in July of the same year. If Alonso is Andretti’s Kurt Busch, that would make Harvey hope to be Andretti’s Alexander Rossi – or at the very minimum, a Carlos Munoz – at Indianapolis.

Photo: IndyCar

63-Pippa Mann
Susan G. Komen Honda
Dale Coyne Racing
Engineer: Rob Ridgely
Strategist: Rob Ridgely
Best Speed This Month: 230.103 (25th)
Total Laps: 247
Starts: 28th (225.008)
Indy 500 Record: 18th (2016) best finish in 5 prior starts

Mann’s sustained Indianapolis 500 presence owes to her tireless work ethic year-round to make opportunities happen. Her fifth straight run with Coyne was set to feature no in-month changes in the driver lineup, but following Sebastien Bourdais’ accident it saw the lead car’s switch. Fortunately for Mann, she’s paired with an engineer she knows and works with well in Ridgely. It’s not been the easiest of months for her but as a consistent 500-mile race finisher in recent years, doing so again will be her now-annual typically solid performance.

Photo: IndyCar

11-Spencer Pigot
Oceanfront Recovery Chevrolet
Juncos Racing
Engineer: Steve Newey
Strategist: Tom Brown
Best Speed This Month: 226.140 (32ndd)
Total Laps: 246
Starts: 29th (224.052)
Indy 500 Record: 25th (2016) best finish in 1 prior start

Pigot’s Indianapolis 500 slot in 2017 wasn’t meant to be here but winds up here nonetheless in a fortuitous, last minute reunion. The thinking when he signed on again to be Ed Carpenter Racing’s road and street course driver for a second straight year was that Carpenter would run him in an extra car for the Indianapolis 500, as the team did for JR Hildebrand the last three years. But it was not to be, with Carpenter citing budgetary restrictions. Pigot, however, will get a one-off reunion with Ricardo Juncos as the two will now be on the grid together for Juncos’ IndyCar debut. Pigot won two straight championships with Juncos on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda in 2014 followed by Indy Lights in 2015, but winning is far from the goal this race. For Juncos, simply staying out of trouble will be key in its IndyCar race debut, and in Pigot, he has a usually safe pair of hands.

Photo: IndyCar

44-Buddy Lazier
Lazier Racing-Stalk It-Tivoli Chevrolet
Lazier Racing Partners
Engineer: Mitch Davis
Strategist: Mitch Davis
Best Speed This Month: 225.198 (33rd)
Total Laps: 85
Starts: 30th (223.417)
Indy 500 Record: 1 wins (1996) from 19 prior starts

The now-annual story of Buddy Lazier’s family-run, shoestring budget, Indianapolis 500-only entry rolls on for a fifth straight year. This makes him both a throwback and the last link to a past generation, which is fun to write about. The 1996 Indianapolis 500 champion is racing against 12 drivers who were born in the 1990s in this year’s field. Lazier is yet to finish a race since this team began in 2013, with early retirements in 2013 and 2014 before last year’s pre-race failure to start then ceding to a loose tire while running dozens of laps down in the final 40 laps, setting up a caution that produced Alexander Rossi’s magical run to the flag. It shouldn’t be as simple as setting the goal of finishing the race, but for the likable, still fit, now-49-year-old, that’s about the only realistic goal he and this small, Vail, Col.-based team can hope to achieve, with anything beyond that a bonus.

Photo: IndyCar

17-Sebastian Saavedra
AFS Chevrolet
Juncos Racing
Engineer: David Cripps
Strategist: David Cripps
Best Speed This Month: 227.889 (29th)
Total Laps: 236
Starts: 31st (221.142)
Indy 500 Record: 15th (2014) best finish in 5 prior starts

The likable Colombian with the spiky hair makes his sixth Indianapolis 500 start, with series debutantes Juncos joining Ganassi, KV, Dragon, Andretti and Herta as teams Saavedra has raced the ‘500 with – and this doesn’t include Conquest, with whom he failed to qualify in 2011. The Herta parallel is an interesting one because that was a debut team as well. Saavedra is race experienced and as such will draw on that for a safe 500 miles of running.

Photo: IndyCar

40-Zach Veach
Indy Women in Tech Championship presented by Guggenheim Chevrolet
AJ Foyt Racing
Engineer: Andy Brown
Strategist: Andy O’Gara
Best Speed this month: 227.082 (31st)
Total Laps: 293
Starts: 32nd (221.081)
Indy 500 Record: Rookie

Veach enters with an unexpected extra race under his belt thanks to his fill-in role for JR Hildebrand at Barber, but while that taught him pit stop practice and got him race ready, Barber and Indy could not be further apart as race tracks. And unfortunately, the same is true for these two events for how Veach has gone. After impressing at Barber, it’s been a tough month for the 22-year-old from Stockdale, Ohio with a heavy pre-qualifying crash in practice providing a setback. Veach never starred in the Freedom 100; he made a mistake with a potential winning car here last year with Belardi Auto Racing and had two midfield finishes prior to that with Andretti Autosport. Realistically, a solid top-20 finish would be an excellent result for him, working with veteran engineer Andy Brown and Josef Newgarden’s old strategist, Andy O’Gara.

Photo: IndyCar

18-James Davison
GEICO Honda
Dale Coyne Racing
Engineers: Craig Hampson/Olivier Boisson
Strategist: Darren Crouser
Best Speed This Month: 223.670 (34th)
Total Laps: 88
Starts: 33rd (No Speed)
Indy 500 Record: 16th (2014) best finish in 2 prior starts

In a last-minute call-up under less than ideal circumstances, Davison will make his third Indianapolis 500 start for Coyne. Davison’s been full-time in sports cars the last several seasons, but doesn’t have a full-time opportunity this year. If he can stay out of trouble both he and his car have enough speed to move up the order.

F1 Preview: 2017 Monaco Grand Prix

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As racing weekends go, few come bigger than the one we are about to embark on.

Between the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race, the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 and Formula 1’s annual crown jewel event, the Monaco Grand Prix, there is no shortage of motorsport action.

The debate regarding which of the three is the biggest and best could rage on endlessly, but there can be little doubt that Monaco is the most glamorous.

As the 20-strong grid dart their ways around the tight confines of the principality’s streets, the rich and famous will watch on. This weekend, if you live for the limelight, there is no better place to be seen than Monaco.

But it is F1’s biggest stars who will shine brightest on Sunday. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton’s burgeoning rivalry was once again on display last time out in Spain as they went wheel-to-wheel for victory, with the latter emerging victorious.

Both drivers know what it takes to win in Monaco – but who will come out on top this weekend? Here are the key talking points ahead of Sunday’s grand prix.

2017 Monaco Grand Prix – Talking Points

Vettel, Hamilton ready to serve up a classic

The Monaco Grand Prix may be the most iconic race on the F1 calendar, yet it is hardly renowned for being conducive to wheel-to-wheel fights given the narrow nature of the city streets (more on that later).

However, racing isn’t all about overtaking. Many of the most iconic battles in Monaco have seen two drivers shoot clear of the pack and run nose-to-tail for much of the race, with last year’s thrilling fight between Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo being the most recent.

Given the tiny margin separating Ferrari and Mercedes in the early part of the year, we could be poised for another classic between Vettel and Hamilton – one that could even be defining in their championship battle.

Vettel out to end Ferrari’s Monaco hoodoo

Ferrari may have been one of the most dominant teams in F1 since the turn of the millennium, yet Monaco has been among its weakest circuits.

Not since 2001 has the Prancing Horse trotted to the top step of the podium in Monaco with Michael Schumacher, with the likes of Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and, since 2015, Vettel, all failing to win the race.

2017 presents Ferrari’s best chance of a Monaco win in a long time. With Mercedes running a longer wheelbase, the SF70H may be the car to beat. Vettel will be leading Maranello’s charge once again, and if 2005 Monaco winner Raikkonen can play a decent rear gunner, Ferrari may be able to hark back to its past success.

JB’s back!

While Fernando Alonso may be hogging the limelight over in Indianapolis ahead of this weekend’s ‘500, Jenson Button is currently getting used to life back in the F1 paddock as he prepares for a one-off appearance in Monaco.

Button seemed to have retired from F1 at the end of last year, and has been enjoying much of his free time in America with his girlfriend and preparing for triathlons, only for Alonso’s shock deal to put the wheels in motion for a return.

Monaco appears to be McLaren’s best chance of points in the early part of the season, with the deficiences stemming from the Honda power unit being masked somewhat. So while there is an opportunity for Button, his lack of testing – his first lap in the MCL32 will be tomorrow in practice – means we should not expect the world.

Nevertheless, much as Alonso’s Indy adventure has been a good news story for McLaren, so is bringing back the ever-popular JB.

How will 2017’s wider cars cope in Monaco?

This is the question that was on everyone’s mind when the dimensions of the new-for-2017 cars were announced. They certainly are quicker and look much meaner, but they’re also much bulkier – and on a track like Monaco where space is already hard to come by, it could make it a very tight squeeze indeed.

 

“It’s always tight around this track even now I think because it’s 20cm wider, the car. It doesn’t sound much but when you put all the cars together and on a tight circuit you see it and notice it more,” Daniel Ricciardo explained in Wednesday’s press conference.

“So qualify well! It’s going to help” – sage advice indeed, now more than ever…

Opportunity knocks for midfield runners

The battle through F1’s midfield has been one of the closest in recent memory so far this season, with the updates that Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso, Haas and Renault brought to Barcelona only acting to tighten things up further.

Monaco is a race where opportunities can present themselves. The likes of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull have been out of reach thus far in 2017, yet a tiny error or a fortuitous strategy call that leads to track position could turn all of that on its head.

Force India currently leads the pecking order on points, although Sergio Perez insists the team still doesn’t have a faster car than Williams – the Mexican finished on the podium here last year, and a repeat is not unthinkable, regardless of his assertion.

2017 Monaco Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Circuit de Monaco
Corners: 19
Lap Record: Lewis Hamilton 1:17.939 (2016)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) 1:13.622
2016 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:17.939
DRS Zone: T19 to T1

2017 Monaco Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times

Recent MRTI grads comprise significant chunk of Indy 500 field

Ed Jones is a dark horse on Sunday. Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – With the current crop of established veteran Verizon IndyCar Series drivers in their early 30s to early 40s, it’s worth asking when the next generation of drivers will properly emerge in a “changing of the guard.”

It took time for IndyCar to move on from the Andretti, Unser, Rahal, Foyt, Mears, Fittipaldi, Sullivan and more group of names, as most retired into the 1990s. In their place have come the Castroneves, Kanaan, Montoya, Dixon, Power, Hunter-Reay, Bourdais and Pagenauds of the world, having debuted between the late 1990s and mid-2000s.

There’s a distinct feel this Indianapolis 500 though that the next verge of talent is on the horizon, if not this year then in the next two to three years to come.

The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires presence in this year’s Indianapolis 500 is deep and detailed. Some 14 of the 33 drivers have raced in the series since its formal 2010 introduction, and others have raced in previous American open-wheel ladder championships (namely Formula Atlantic or Indy Lights in its prior iteration) and 24 Mazda Road to Indy alumni in the field all told.

It might, in fact, be easier to count the drivers racing Sunday who don’t have any North American open-wheel ladder experience.

It’s the recent grads though who have a good chance in this race, which for the moment is their only confirmed race of 2017, who otherwise have nothing to lose.

Five of the last six Indy Lights champions are in the field, dating to 2011. Josef Newgarden and Ed Jones are the two full-time drivers, Spencer Pigot races most events as road/street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing while he’s since switched to Juncos Racing for this race only, while past teammates and back-to-back champions Sage Karam and Gabby Chaves are looking to re-establish themselves as full-time IndyCar competitors after only having parts of one full season.

The others who’ve raced in the Road to Indy and graduated from 2010 to 2016 and are in this year’s field include two rookies, Zach Veach and Jack Harvey, A.J. Foyt Enterprises teammates Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, several-time IndyCar race winner James Hinchcliffe, Ganassi’s Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball, Juncos’ Sebastian Saavedra, and Dale Coyne Racing’s Pippa Mann.

This list doesn’t include two other notables in Matthew Brabham and RC Enerson, who impressed in limited 2016 IndyCar starts, but aren’t in this year’s Indianapolis 500 owing to lack of finances, not lack of talent.

ED JONES AND COYNE LEAD THE WAY FROM P11

It’s been Jones who’s been the underrated, and under-appreciated, star of the month. The Dubai-based Brit may be this year’s only full-season rookie, but has been impressive from the off at Dale Coyne Racing. With several laps turned over 230 mph and both pace and patience in traffic, the defending Indy Lights champion and Mazda scholarship recipient is arguably the top darkhorse Sunday from P11 in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda. And it’s not like a rookie started 11th and won last year’s race or anything… (Alexander Rossi did, hence the setup).

Jones flies the flag as IndyCar’s lone full season rookie in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

“I guess the heat made the car a bit more difficult to drive because this morning in practice we rolled out and did four laps and were like ‘let’s park it, that’s the perfect car,'” Jones said after qualifying. “But nonetheless, it was a great job by the guys who made some changes from yesterday. Thanks to the team, Dale, my engineers.

“Obviously, it was a tough day yesterday, but the team spirit is so strong. It’s great to be a part of this team. It’s tough, like they say with racing you’re always up and down. Especially around here, a place where you’ve got to treat it with respect. Any tiny mistake or any small difference can cost you a huge amount. I’m just proud to be representing this team, hopefully we can move further up in the race.”

TWO MRTI LEGACY STARS REUNITE; PIGOT AND JUNCOS BACK TOGETHER

Pigot and Juncos are reunited for Juncos’ Indy debut. Photo: IndyCar

Rising Star Racing-supported driver Pigot, inadvertently, gets his start in this year’s ‘500 with a MRTI graduate team in Juncos Racing, thus completing the journey for Argentine team owner Ricardo Juncos into IndyCar. Rarely, if ever, has a story been written where a driver began with a team in karting and the two grew together simultaneously to where now he’s driving for Juncos in its debut. Despite a crash in practice, the spirit of the Juncos team shone through with a rebuild overnight, and Pigot’s return in qualifying spoke volumes.

“I just got a little loose. I exited Turn 1. It was a shame, because we had a decent run going,” Pigot said. “It might have been high-20s, which from Friday, I would’ve been all right with after that crash. All that matters is we’re in the race, and I was able to save the car there in Turn 1. I’ve got to thank the guys. They’ve worked a lot of long hours to get me back out here.”

“It’s crazy! So 15 years ago, coming from Argentina, in karts and he’s 9 years old,” Juncos reflected. “Now we’re living this dream. Without losing the focus on the task, we need to enjoy this, because it’s a great story of the team, of Spencer, and of both of them together. For whatever reason, it’s happening.”

RECENT INDY LIGHTS CHAMPS, WINNERS LOOK TO MOVE UP FULLY

Chaves (88, 2014) and Hildebrand (21, 2009) are past Indy Lights champs in the field. Photo: IndyCar

Chaves has the most official success in IndyCar among the champions from the last few years. The Colombian American parlayed the 2014 Indy Lights title into both the series and Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year honors in 2015, and might have won at Pocono had it not been for an engine issue driving on a shoestring budget for Bryan Herta Autosport. But financial pitfalls hit before 2016, leaving him scrambling for a ride and then left to watch as Alexander Rossi won the Indy 500.

Now with series debutante Mike Harding, Chaves says this is another great opportunity for him to continue and show he – and the team – belong.

Al Unser Jr. and Gabby Chaves. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s huge… it’s what it’s all about, right?” Chaves said. “It’s about keeping the sport going, getting some new faces in it. There are definitely a lot of guys who can stick around and be here for a while.”

Veach, one of Chaves’ closer friends and fellow IndyCar two-seater driver, makes his Indianapolis 500 debut in a third car for Foyt. The journey’s been harder for him and Harvey, perhaps, as they didn’t win an Indy Lights title and the Mazda advancement scholarship that goes with it. But it hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his dream.

Veach looks to impress in third car for AJ Foyt Racing. Photo: IndyCar

“When I talked to AJ Foyt Racing, one of the first things they mentioned was my drive at Road America last year, when I won with a car that wasn’t handling that great, and my dominant win at Watkins Glen,” Veach explained. “I think that showed them a spark of what I can do and that’s what the Mazda Road to Indy has made easy. You have the confidence to walk up to teams because they’re familiar with your past and your lifestyle.”

Harvey, like Veach, came up just short of an Indy Lights title. Chaves beat him to the 2014 title on a tiebreak and then in 2015, Harvey’s fast start faded down the stretch as Pigot and Jones closed stronger. Nonetheless, he’s happy to be back in a seat after it’s been nearly two years since his last start, in Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport’s car.

Harvey and Shank are rolling through the ups and downs of Indy. Photo: IndyCar

“The ladder we all know rewards winning,” Harvey said. “For people like Zach and I especially, we did everything right to win, but the cards didn’t fall our way. It reflects on us as people, how hard we’ve worked to get here. We’ve kept grinding and got the opportunities we have.”

THE FACTORY SPORTS CAR STAR AND YOUNG CHARGER BACK AGAIN

Karam looks to make the most of his one scheduled 2017 IndyCar start. Photo: IndyCar

Karam won both the USF2000 and Indy Lights titles and has been trying to stick full-time in IndyCar for four years. Now a factory driver for the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Indianapolis is always a welcome comeback for the 22-year-old out of Nazareth, who prepares for his fourth ‘500 as the youngest driver in the field, with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

“It feels good to have some races under my belt with Lexus and Scott this year including the Daytona 24, Sebring, Long Beach and COTA,” said Karam. “I feel that doing those races has made me more relaxed behind the wheel coming to Indy. Last year, without some racing before Indy, I thought I got too anxious in the 500 when I was towards the front. I really wanted to lead the race.”

Many of the names mentioned in this piece aren’t household names yet. But they are all drivers in their 20s who have potential staying power for years to come.

Supplanting the veterans isn’t something that comes easily, but given what Josef Newgarden has accomplished with time, breaking into the top-five in points and winning multiple races as he’s into his sixth season now, and has arrived at Team Penske at age 26.

None of the other recent graduates have more than three years experience in IndyCar. But they’re working towards that point, and Sunday’s race provides a great shot where an unheralded name or two emerges on a national stage.