Franchitti set to pace field, take in 2014 Indy 500 from outside the cockpit

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Of all the 2013 drivers who aren’t in the 2014 race, one stands heads and shoulders above the crowd in terms of accomplishments and accolades: Dario Franchitti.

The three-time Indianapolis 500, and four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion, was forced to retire due to injuries sustained in an accident last October in Houston.

But the adverse effect has happened instead of him slowing down after not driving 230 mph. Franchitti told me Friday during the Carb Day pit stop competition he’s busier than ever, and so is the case where even over the course of our 20-or so minute conversation, there were multiple picture requests and a phone call from brother Marino back in Scotland.

He’s still active in several aspects, between his advisory role with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and some commentary and ambassadorial roles.

“I offered to change tires for them, but they turned me down,” Franchitti joked during an NBCSN interview on Carb Day.

He has more time away from the cockpit when he is in the U.S., but he’s being pulled in so many other directions than when he was a driver and had a single focus.

But now, from the outside, he sees what drivers go through in their zone, in their element, for the entire month of May.

“I am loving life, but it’s a little different,” he said. “You don’t have the pressure or hardness either. What you go through is extraordinary. You can get short-tempered. I thought when I saw these guys, I couldn’t do that right now.

“I don’t have that level of (driving) commitment right now. I’m in the right place. I’m having fun and still being part of the IndyCar Series and Team Target.”

One part of his workload that he can translate is playing analyst – both for the quartet of Chip Ganassi Racing entries and additionally for the rest of the field. Franchitti described how his former teammates are shaping up for today’s race.

“(Tony) Kanaan’s car is very strong as is (Scott) Dixon’s. Charlie (Kimball) and Ryan are happy (Briscoe),” he said. “Going 1-2 this morning was strong. The boys were happy in traffic. It’s one of those days, where the whole Target team has done a great job. We’re seeing that result today.”

There is that one other key part of Franchitti’s 2014 month of May – his role as pace car driver in the Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R. And he told reporters Saturday morning that yes, he’s nervous.

“I just don’t want to mess it up,” he said. “There’s 33 of my contemporaries, it’s the most important thing of the year. I joked with Will (Power) about brake checking him on one of the laps.”

Now, Franchitti can take in the entire race morning experience from a different perspective.

“I can’t wait to be on the grid, soak up the atmosphere for the first time,” he said. “My job before was to walk out and focus. Now this year I can soak it all in.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.