Money debut from Sage Karam, 31st to 9th, leads six traditional Indy 500 rookies

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On Friday, 19-year-old Sage Karam dazzled the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crowd over a few feet on pit lane during the Carb Day Pit Stop Competition.

On Sunday, he did so in a dynamic charge through the field over 200 laps, 500 miles and 800 left-hand turns.

Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights champion of Nazareth, Pa., made his Verizon IndyCar Series debut in the series’ biggest race – the 98th Indianapolis 500 – from the final row of the field, in 31st place on the grid and ended ninth when all was said and done.

Throughout the race, despite his pit stop sequence seeing him pit anywhere from three to four laps sooner than the leaders, Karam began a methodical charge through the field of five spots into the 20s, then into the teens, and ultimately into the top-10.

“I knew qualifying wasn’t showing our true speed,” he said post-race. “I wanted to come to the front so badly. I came up to about eighth or ninth, then I caught the yellow at worst spot. Went a lap down and had to do it all over again.

“We ran out of time. But the car was on fire. It was awesome. I’m so blessed and honored. I hope this isn’t my last IndyCar race this year.”

One of Karam’s moves during the field was only for 18th place, but it was a move that even some of Indy’s legends wouldn’t have dared.

He tried, and succeeded, passing fellow rookie Mikhail Aleshin, the first Russian to race the Indianapolis 500, on the outside of Turn 1. Going into the race, I’d have expected Aleshin to try that move, not necessarily Karam.

But that’s the beauty of being a confident, but not cocky, 19-year-old fearless rookie. And he pulled it off in style.

“Dario (Franchitti) told me before the race that these cars, they could go on outside, two-wide. So I just went for it,” Karam said. “Maybe it was a little too aggressive too early, but I was on a mission to get to the front. And the car stuck.”

Karam is optimistic his performance today will lead to future IndyCar opportunities the rest of the year. He admitted this was the hardest race he’s driven.

He also impressed his boss for this race, Dennis Reinbold. Karam’s car was sponsored by Comfort Revolution, Big Machine Records and Brantley Gilbert, and entered by Dreyer & Reinbold Kingdom Racing in partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing.

“He was great to work with from Day 1,” Reinbold said post-race. “I’ve never seen a 19-year-old with his maturity level. He got faster and faster every lap, and yet he was so calm … I don’t think his heart rate got above a resting pulse. Outside, he’s a fun-loving 19-year-old, but he gets behind the wheel and starts doing big things.”

While Karam’s next race is the proverbial to-be-determined, and the top finishing rookie in the field was Kurt Busch, P6 in a one-off, here’s how the rest of the rookies fared:

  • KV Racing Technology’s James Davison ended P16, up from P28 on the grid, in the Always Evolving Racing-backed No. 33 Chevrolet. Davison admitted he lost ground to Alex Tagliani, Jacques Villeneuve and Sebastian Saavedra on the last restart but was otherwise pleased after a trouble-free run.
  • Same story for Dale Coyne’s Carlos Huertas, who in his first ever oval race was impressively anonymous – P17 from 21st on the grid, best of Coyne’s three cars, and completed all 200 laps.
  • Early season revelations Jack Hawksworth (BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian) and Aleshin (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) ended 20th and 21st. Hawksworth fought understeer while Aleshin lost ground on a pit stop, but led a lap during a pit sequence (Lap 32), his first in IndyCar competition.
  • It was a tough day at the office for A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ Martin Plowman, but in 23rd he made it seven rookie finishers after seven rookies started. Plowman finished four laps down and made contact with Josef Newgarden under a caution that took the young American out of the race.

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.