Fans race (and try to wreck) Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson

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KNOXVILLE, Iowa — How many NASCAR fans have said to themselves or friends, “Man, if I only had the chance, I’d love to bang fenders with my favorite driver?”

Or, “Man, I’d love to take (fill in driver’s name) out in a race.”

Well, on Wednesday at Slideways Karting Center in Knoxville, Iowa, nearly 60 lucky fans had the chance to do one of the rarest things in pro sports: to race with their heroes, four of the biggest names in NASCAR.

Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson took on the lucky fans in the second annual Kick-It/Weld Racing Go-Kart Spectacular to benefit pediatric cancer.

“This is really going to change the lives for children out there with pediatric cancer, so thank you, thank you, thank you,” Gordon told the crowd of about 2,500 fans that turned out to watch. “When I looked at the parking lot today and saw the line of cars down the road, I knew it was going to be a good day.

“I don’t know of anywhere in the world where you’re going to go to a go-kart track and see Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and myself together – or have as much fun.”

Each of the nearly 60 fans that raced paid at least $300 for the chance to do some rubbin’ and racin’ on the slippery oval, a track that was made even more slick with periodic rain sprinkles throughout the afternoon.

“We’re all passionate about this week, this event and we’re all passionate about Jeff’s efforts,” Stewart said. “We do it because of Jeff and because of the kids that he supports. That’s what racers do. It’s not about being a stock car driver. That’s the breed of drivers we are and the background we come from.”

There even was a special guest in the house, Gordon’s former crew chief and NASCAR team owner and broadcaster, Ray Evernham.

Evernham and the four drivers were all in town for the Daytona 500 of the sprint car world, the Knoxville Nationals, which began later Wednesday evening.

Before one of the heats, Evernham looked like he was trying to improve Gordon’s go-kart, prompting Tony Stewart to quip with a laugh, “No fair, no working on the car. You’re cheating just like you used to.”

“It’s great to see Jeff, Tony, Kasey and Kyle supporting what they’ve got going on out here,” Evernham said. “To me, (sprint car) is really grassroots racing. It’s where a lot of us grew up and it’s really neat to see a lot of people doing it and all the support that they have.”

When I asked Evernham why he wasn’t in the go-kart race, he replied with a laugh, “My problem is I’ve always been a much better mechanic than driver.”

The event raised nearly $25,000 for charity, including Jeff Gordon’s Children’s Foundation.

“Oh my gosh, it was so much fun,” Gordon said. “This place is so much fun to go out there in (simulated) sprint cars and slide ’em around. A little bit of sprinkle making for a lot of fun conditions. And there’s some guys out there with some real skills. We all have big smiles on our face, having a lot of fun.”

“Those of us with Kick-It, for kids cancer, this is a real treat for us to be able to come here, be a part of this event, raise money for a great cause – pediatric cancer – have a go-kart event like this and to have the fans come out and support the way they did this year is amazing. It’s a huge crowd. When you get this kind of a driver lineup out here in Knoxville, the fans are going to come. I hope they enjoyed it, because we certainly did.”

Added Kahne, “It’s neat to see, all the money goes to a great cause, and we get to race a lot of people that are out here having fun like we are. It’s a cool, cool event.”

There were eight heat races leading up to the main event. The winners of each heat advanced to race all four pro drivers, who understood and took it good-naturedly that some of their fellow drivers were looking for bragging rights that they spun out a NASCAR star.

“It’s fun racing with the fans because this is like the biggest thing they’ve ever done, racing with us,” Larson said. “They take it really serious, you can see it on their faces. It makes it fun for us to see how focused they are. And when we beat them, they grip the steering wheel even harder.

“You can see it happen, too. You see them like focus on your rear bumper and just turn toward you. We understand it, though, and it’s funny.”

Not surprisingly, much like the way Sprint Cup drivers typically dominate when they race in the Nationwide Series, the Cup drivers were the stars in Wednesday’s main event.

Gordon won the race, Kahne was a close second, and Anthony Corini, a 20-year-old college student from Rockville, Md., was the top-finishing fan, taking home a trophy and the experience of a lifetime.

“That was pretty fun,” Corini said. “The rain made it real interesting. It was a lot of fun. I’ll never forget it. It was a great moment. There was a lot of money raised for a good cause.

“I did it last year, but I ran around the back in the main. I made it, but I didn’t do as well as I did this year. I finished behind Jeff and Kasey, but not too bad of company, I guess. I think I was flying under the radar.”

Stewart and Larson finished further back in the 12-driver pack.

“I think (sprint car driver) Brad Doty put it best when he said, ‘Think about what this means to people and being able to do this,'” Stewart said. “But at the same time, think about how much it means to us to be able to do it. It’s fun for us. Nobody’s out there trying to wreck you and put you in the wall. Everybody’s racing and having fun. It makes stuff like this a lot of fun.

“Look at everybody that’s out here, and in the rain, no less. That’s the kind of fans you see at sprint car races. Everybody’s having fun and enjoying it.”

As for a certain MotorSportsTalk writer who also competed in the event, well … let’s just say he finished and leave it at that.

And we won’t get into that he got spun twice by a certain NASCAR star whose last name rhymes with “pain,” or about the flat tire – his third in five days – said writer had on the way to Iowa.

But that’s another story for another time.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

WATCH LIVE and notes: IndyCar at Barber (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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Coverage of the third round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, takes place today starting at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after INDYCAR: NEXT featuring James Hinchcliffe from Long Beach, which airs at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Leigh Diffey will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 2 to 5 p.m. CT and local time, so 3 to 6 p.m. ET.

The race sets up nicely for Team Penske and Chevrolet to get on the board with Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud starting in the top three positions.

But with the first two race winners, Hinchcliffe (fourth at Long Beach) and Sebastien Bourdais (21st at St. Petersburg) have started significantly further back. One of those trends seems set to continue today.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • With a 90-lap race, the pit windows are fairly open for a three-stop strategy. A two-stop could only be achieved with a significant amount of yellow.
  • With ambient temperatures in the mid-60s, about 20 to 25 degrees cooler than the rest of the weekend and with rain having washed rubber from the 2.3-mile circuit, expect track conditions to be significantly different on Sunday.
  • Scott Dixon starts fourth in pursuit of his elusive first 2017 victory and first Barber victory after six non-win podiums.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay will lead Andretti Autosport’s charge from P5, looking for his first win since Pocono 2015 and for his third Barber win after taking the 2013 and 2014 victories.
  • Josef Newgarden rolls off P7, as he looks for his first win with Team Penske. He won his first career race at his “adopted home track” in 2015 with CFH Racing.
  • Either or both Dale Coyne Racing drivers look to continue their incredible starts. Ed Jones and Sebastien Bourdais share Row 6, Jones having done well to outqualify Bourdais straight-up on Saturday.
  • Zach Veach makes his IndyCar debut from 19th. The 22-year-old has improved by about four or five tenths per session each session thus far for Ed Carpenter Racing, and will look for a clean race on Sunday.
  • Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso and Zak Brown have arrived in Alabama and will make the rounds on Sunday as a get-acquainted session with the Andretti Autosport team.
  • ASIMO, Honda’s advanced humanoid robot, is the race’s grand marshal and will give the command to start engines.

The starting lineup with Firestone tire designation is below:

Indy Lights: Colton Herta rolls to win 400th Indy Lights race

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Colton Herta rebounded from a difficult Race 1 at Barber Motorsports Park to dominate Race 2 of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the 400th event in the history of Indy Lights. Herta started on pole after qualifying was rained out and immediately shot off into the lead when the green flag waved. He claimed victory over second-place Kyle Kaiser by more than nine seconds to complete a dominant performance.

Kaiser’s second place mirrors his second-place finish from Saturday, while Nico Jamin backed up his win on Saturday with a third on Sunday.

Race 2 again saw an opening lap caution, this one for contact between Zachary Claman De Melo and Pato O’Ward. Both went off course between turns two and three, with O’Ward spinning and briefly stalling in the gravel trap. Each made it back around to the pits, but both retired after suffering too much damage to continue.

Santi Urrutia also went for a quick spin after the race restarted, even damaging the front wing in the process. However, his incident did not bring out a caution and the race ran green to the end.

Results are below. The race will air Wednesday 4/26 at midnight on NBCSN.

Fernando Alonso ready to tackle ‘the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure’

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With smiles, humor, wit and determination, two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived in the Barber Motorsports Park press conference room and promptly delivered his second win of the season – the first coming when he, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown, Honda and Andretti Autosport combined to stun the racing world in announcing earlier this month that Alonso would be racing in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Alonso’s odyssey to come over the next month or so since that announcement has a game plan, a travel schedule and plenty of words to describe the experience. He and Brown arrived in Alabama late Saturday, and the two met the rest of the Andretti Autosport team.

On Sunday, Alonso made his maiden appearance on pit road during the warmup session for today’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s pit for his No. 28 DHL Honda.

The press conference this morning then brought the same spirit of determination Alonso has outlined as his quest for even wanting to run the Indianapolis 500 in the first place, as well as a few jokes along the way.

“It’s true! It’s my first time here, and hopefully not the last. I want to come to see more of Alabama and this circuit,” Alonso led off during the press conference.

“This has been an amazing week to 10 days from the announcement. For any racing driver in the world to compete in this race is the main goal, against the best drivers, in some of the fastest, best cars in the world.

“This is the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure. I need to go through different steps in this learning, I need to do it in a short amount of time. But it’s so exciting. I need to thank McLaren, Honda for this opportunity and all the Andretti Autosport team.”

Alonso promptly outlined the schedule he’s going to be undertaking from here. After watching today’s IndyCar race, he’ll go to Andretti Autosport’s Indianapolis shop for a seat fit in preparation for his maiden test on May 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From the shop, he’ll be off to Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix (TV times on NBCSN here), and then back to the U.S. after that.

“From now on, it’ll be an interesting next couple weeks. There’s a couple of trips to Europe and U.S.A. back and forth. Next weekend, we will race in Russia for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, then the test, then the Spanish Grand Prix, then come back for the Indianapolis 500. I will try to learn as quick as I can.”

Alonso said he’s been thinking about this opportunity for several years in advance.

“Let’s say four to five years ago, I started thinking about how to grow up as a driver and become more complete,” he said.

“I didn’t think it was possible. But it makes me very happy to have this first attempt.

“Winning is something really big. I take it more like an experience. I’m very open. If the race was tomorrow, I’m not ready to do it because I know nothing about it. But I will go step-by-step to do some simulator laps. I have to be as good as I can on simulator, qualifying and running alone, then traffic when it comes time.”

Brown confirmed the support team around Alonso is as solid as ever. Michael Andretti will call Alonso’s race as strategist with Andretti technical director Eric Bretzman serving as engineer. Today he added that Alonso will have Honda consultant, 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion, two-time CART champion and closed course world speed record holder Gil de Ferran there as a driver coach to aid Alonso’s development.

Alonso brought some jokes when asked about Formula 1 drivers’ respective takes on his running Indianapolis and skipping the Monaco Grand Prix, where Jenson Button will make a one-race cameo to come out of retirement to deputize.

“We don’t talk much. It’s a different world!” Alonso laughed. “The only thing I know is probably what you guys have read, which is what I’ve read too.

“Some of them are happy and curious to see how competitive we can be. Others aren’t happy with anything in life … except their own performance. It’s a different world.”

About his former sparring partner in F1, Juan Pablo Montoya: “I don’t know if he’ll be at the front!” Alonso said to more laughter.

Alonso said he’ll look forward to the simulator time ahead, and told NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy that the simulator he is used to in Formula 1 is incredible.

In terms of the best advice he’s received?

“Enjoy,” Alonso reflected.

“It’s something that this race is so unique, so I’m ready to experience these emotions. That race, that day, everything happens so quickly. You tend to forget what you are doing. I’m ready to enjoy everything I’m doing that day.”

Brown, Andretti and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, also joined Alonso on the dais. Stefan Wilson’s contribution to the effort was once again praised.

The most noteworthy piece of news to come out of this trio was that Miles confirmed he’d be going on a European promotional tour after the Phoenix race (April 29) to spread the word about IndyCar, the Indianapolis 500 and Alonso’s attempt.

“The attention we have seen already is incredible,” Miles said. “I will be In London, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, and we’re going be there while he’s in Indy to tell the IndyCar story.

“I’ve read clippings back from the first race in Indianapolis, and Fernando’s presence will make it even bigger this year.”

Perhaps Brown summed up the announcement best: “This is an outstanding opportunity for the world of motorsports to be able to come to Indianapolis. And I’ve never seen a driver so excited, dedicated and motivated to run in a race.”

More to follow…

Marco Andretti leads a wet Barber warmup

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Mother Nature rolled in overnight and through the early morning at Barber Motorsports Park, dropping a lot of rain on the 2.38-mile road course. Conditions stayed wet during the Verizon IndyCar Series morning warmup, although the rain clouds had moved away by then and the track began drying out.

Marco Andretti led the way after changing to slick tires on his final run, which indicates how quickly the track dried out during the 30-minute session. Marco was the only driver to run slick tires and his quick lap of 1:14.37 was nearly 3.5 seconds quicker than second-place runner Scott Dixon. Alexander Rossi, Spencer Pigot, and Ryan Hunter-Reay completed the top five, while James Hinchcliffe, Mikhail Aleshin, and Zach Veach did not turn laps during the warmup.

Despite the tricky conditions, the session ran relatively cleanly. Helio Castroneves brought out a brief red flag when he went into the gravel trap in turn five, but he suffered no damage and continued on after getting a tow. Ed Jones also had a quick off-course excursion of his own between turns 12, 13, and 14, but he rejoined the track and continued.

Times are below. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama rolls off at 3:00 p.m. ET (2:00 local time).