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Kimball: Time to move on, bank results that match No. 83 team’s pace

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First-lap incidents in the first two races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have left Charlie Kimball and the No. 83 Tresiba Honda team reeling and in need of a simple, clean weekend at this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Kimball’s one of six drivers in the 21-driver field who has qualified in the top-10 in both races so far, with ninth at St. Petersburg and seventh at Long Beach two very solid runs. In fact the Long Beach grid position is the best of his seven-year, 100-plus start career on street courses, supplanting an eighth at Detroit race one last year.

Alas, comings-together with Graham Rahal at St. Petersburg and Will Power in Long Beach, both at places where passing is difficult, have left him mired in 21st and last in the standings with 18th and last place finishes.

Needless to say, Kimball is hoping bad things don’t come in threes this weekend, as he’s keen on putting the past behind him.

“Obviously it’s been a tough start. It’s been frustrating,” Kimball told NBC Sports. “The results haven’t shown the true speed and pace of the team. Rolling off in ninth and seventh to start – seventh at Long Beach is my best street course qualifying effort ever – is great, but of course no one is talking about that.

“But the encouraging thing for me is the speed is there, in the car. We’re working better as a team and group. I believe in the 83 crew, in the work Eric (Cowdin, engineer), Scott (Harner, strategist) and Danielle (Shepherd, assistant engineer) are doing.

“We need a nice clean weekend. After testing, we know Phoenix next week is going to be challenging. So coming to Barber this weekend we need to put the past behind us.”

Kimball cleared the air with past Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Rahal after St. Petersburg, and said the door is open for Power to do the same after their second dust-up in four races (Watkins Glen last year). Power tried down Kimball’s inside at the challenging, tight right-hand Turn 4 and although was more than halfway alongside, the pair collided on corner exit with Kimball’s day done on the spot and Power struggling to 13th the rest of the race after front wing damage.

“Graham and I cleared the air really soon after St. Pete. There was a little disagreement and everyone’s entitled to an opinion,” Kimball said.

“I’m happy to have a conversation with Will. He hasn’t reached out to me. He was fired up; I’ll let him take the lead.

“I talked to the stewards and people within the industry. It was a racing incident. Will and I obviously both see it different. But I’m happy to have a conversation and a rational discussion with him. If you can talk about it privately, that’s when it’s meaningful.”

The race results don’t show it but seeing Kimball start this strongly in qualifying out of the gate means he’s gelled well in adapting to the Honda aero kit and engine, as has teammate Max Chilton who’s also seeking an improved result this weekend, when both had optimized the Chevrolet package last year.

“So far I’ve got most of it. The improvement in qualifying is natural progression,” said Kimball, who only once last season qualified in the top-10 in consecutive races – 10th at Barber and second at the INDYCAR Grand Prix – as part of six top-10 starts during the season.

“Part of it is experience-based. Being able to use the data and learn from the data of my teammates is huge, and Scott (Dixon) & Tony (Kanaan) are still two of the best in the series. Having Dario in his mentor/driving coach role as well is invaluable. When we take a step in qualifying, lately it’s been a one-way street. We’re not backsliding like we used to.”

Barber could be a welcome tonic for Kimball, as it’s one of his better tracks.

He scored his first career IndyCar top-10 finish here, 10th in 2011 from 21st on the grid in just his second start. He scored his first Firestone Fast Six appearance in 2013, qualifying fifth and finishing fourth after, incidentally, a dynamic late-race pass on Power for position. He’s been a steady 10th, 12th and ninth here the last three years.

“It’s a particularly challenging, technical track, with high, low and medium-speed corners,” Kimball explained. “If you were to say, pick a track with absolutely everything, it’s right there with Watkins Glen and Road America and has become a classic.

“This will be a challenge for the engineers. Friday and Saturday is hot, and Sunday cooler. Plus with having five or six different other rubber types here this weekend, that grip change is really noticeable when it’s hot. The oils come out differently. It adds another layer to the race weekend itself. Myself and Eric just need to stay focused to how we need to be doing, and try to best manage those things outside our control.”

A good trivia game appearance with friends earlier this week seems to have lifted his spirits, with success coming this week after a struggle in an earlier game. He hopes that off-track fun can translate on-track into a good run of form, starting with Barber this week in the first week of a back-to-back run between here and Phoenix.

“We had a really rough trivia experience over the weekend. We got whooped on!” Kimball laughed. “But a friend told me, ‘The thing about champions is they have short memories.’ We played a great game Monday night.

“So to me, I’m gonna try to apply the same principle here, and use that momentum for a great rest of year.”

MRTI: Keith Donegan earns Mazda Shootout Scholarship

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Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”

The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.

“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”

Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.

Follow @KyleMLavigne