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DiZinno: Barber thoughts, musings, observations

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Having not been at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, the usual post-weekend column is a shorter one by my usual loquacious standards, and comprises some thoughts, musings and observations from both the open-wheel and sports car races held there:

INDYCAR

  • Josef Newgarden’s win in his third start for Team Penske was aided by Will Power’s bad luck and puncture, but it’s still a warning shot to the rest of the field because of how early it comes. Power, in a part-time role, didn’t win his first race for Penske until his fifth start, at Edmonton in 2009. Helio Castroneves scored his first win for Penske at Detroit in his seventh, at Detroit in 2000. Simon Pagenaud took the longest, in his 19th start at Long Beach last year. With the first win out of the way, more should follow, and quickly for the driver that’s highly touted and now just seven points out of the points lead after three races.
  • Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud are maximizing their results as best they can without winning. Neither driver has gotten the headlines they’ve deserved but they’re finishing smart from a championship perspective. And for good measure, they head to Phoenix next week having gone 1-2 there last year… although we expect a Dixon encore to be harder as the Honda aero kit is not expected to be as strong as Chevrolet’s on the short ovals.
  • By contrast, Will Power can’t buy a break. Here’s Power’s last 12 finishing positions in order, dating to Detroit race two, last year: 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 8, 20, 20, 19, 13, 14. In a series where finishing in the same positions or close is so hard given the competitive nature of the field, quite how Power has alternated a sublime stretch of first or seconds and then been hit by this recent run of five straight sub-13th place finishes is a damn statistical anomaly.
  • Dale Coyne Racing is human. The four top-10s in four combined starts for Dale Coyne Racing between Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Jones to start 2017 was impressive as hell, and also unsustainable. Coyne came down to Earth slightly with Bourdais rallying to a hard fought eighth place despite a weekend off pace by his desired standards, while Jones’ race was compromised on the first lap out of his control. Phoenix will be a tough test for these guys next week, and a pair of top-12 finishes would be excellent results there.
  • Fernando Alonso was everywhere. As could be expected, the Spaniard dominated the media landscape, broadcast booths and cameras on cellphones Sunday at Barber. With “Alonsobama” in the books, the balance between covering the excitement over his arrival – which is real, justified and awesome – and not overlooking the other full-timers and one-off entries will be something to monitor over the next month.
  • Barber’s crowd uptick: From the track: 3-day attendance of 82,745, ticket revenue increase more than 10 percent over ’16. That’s good news.
  • Other quick thoughts… Good on Alexander Rossi pulling a fifth place rabbit out of his hat after starting 18th, while it was tough going for James Hinchcliffe to lose a possible podium with an off-course excursion and drop to sixth. The fact both drivers could be disappointed with those results speaks volumes of how strong their teams are…. Mikhail Aleshin maintained his aggression with yet another hard battle today on the last lap, this time with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Some in the paddock rate the “Mad Russian” as overly worthy of that nickname and while Charlie Kimball got all the flack after Long Beach, it’s worth noting how many incidents Aleshin always seems to find himself in. Not that that’s a bad thing for a series in need of a “bad guy…” speaking of Kimball, good to see him survive the first lap without incident but it was hard to figure their off-sequence strategy late. They were always going to need another stop for fuel… tough end for Spencer Pigot to lose a potential top-10, while Zach Veach ticked the right boxes on debut… starting to worry Max Chilton has adopted a Harry Potter-esque “invisibility cloak” through three races.
Alonso was everywhere Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY

Oliver Askew had the broom out this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • With three straight wins in USF2000, it’s fair to call Oliver Askew’s run of form an “Ask-kicking” on the rest of the field. The new Tatuus USF-17 chassis was meant to level the playing field and Cape Motorsports hasn’t had it all its own way; Team Pelfrey, Exclusive Autosport, Pabst Racing, Newman Wachs Racing and even DEForce Racing are showing signs of podium potential. But Askew has been next level good so far, both in terms of his raw pace in qualifying and racecraft and defending from the front. You can tell the coaching and integration working with JJRD, Inc. is paying dividends for one of open-wheel’s best prospects in years.
  • Even despite Askew’s dominance, the top-five have been consistent in USF2000. Askew, Team Pelfrey’s standout 14-year-old Kaylen Frederick, third-year driver Parker Thompson and Dutch rookie Rinus Van Kalmthout all have four top-five finishes in as many races. Only Robert Megennis (St. Pete winner), Luke Gabin and Toby Sowery (Benik debutante this weekend) have cracked the top-five beyond those four.
  • Seeing Andretti Autosport’s improvement in Indy Lights is excellent. For a team lost with the Dallara IL-15 Mazda two years ago and only able to occasionally punch above its weight last year with Dean Stoneman, what Andretti has done out of the gate has been very solid, thanks to its engineering strength. Colton Herta looks the real deal with a dominant win Sunday while Nico Jamin flaunted his unquestioned pace and racecraft on Saturday. The Frenchman has now won three races in just over a month, having also swept the first two LMP3 class races in IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda at Sebring in March (more on that series in a minute). Sophomore Dalton Kellett has been closer to the front and rookie Ryan Norman is showing signs of growth.
  • Another driver with a better start to 2017 is Carlin’s Neil Alberico. The Californian added a solid third and fourth weekend in Barber to his first career podium at St. Petersburg. Between working with engineer Geoff Fickling and driver coach Jack Harvey, it looks like Alberico’s nightmare rookie season is behind him.
  • Other quick thoughts… Kyle Kaiser raced smart this weekend with a pair of seconds, but he needs to find that last fraction more speed to get back to winning… Belardi Auto Racing came down to Earth a bit. Four top-fives in St. Petersburg ceded to just one for Aaron Telitz on Sunday, with fifth, and even that one felt a bit lucky. Santiago Urrutia can’t seem to catch a break on the first laps. Shelby Blackstock, to his credit, banked solid seventh and eighth places and has started nicely with four top-10 finishes in as many races… similarly Juncos rookie Nico Dapero has four quiet top-10s and no major mistakes…. DEForce did well to bank its first double top-10 in USF2000 race two as Kory Enders and Moises de la Vara were seventh and ninth in race two…. Pelfrey’s third driver, Ayla Agren, banked a pair of eighths in Barber but she still is fractionally behind her two younger and less experienced teammates…. Sowery, Darren Keane and Flinn Lazier impressed in their debut weekends, while Bayley Mickler had a tough go of it. Bruna Tomaselli also acquitted herself well in her step up to the new Tatuus USF-17.

SPORTS CARS

The Global MX-5 Cup field assembled, under INDYCAR sanction, for first time. Photo: MX-5 Cup
  • Patrick Gallagher swept the pair of Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires races. The veteran out of Thornville, Ohio executed well in both races and seized his opportunity for the McCumbee McAleer Racing team, in its No. 29 MX-5. Gallagher has won a season opener before, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
  • It was a new weekend for MX-5 in a way, as the series made its debut under INDYCAR sanctioning and Andersen Promotions umbrellas. More than 30 cars competed during the weekend and despite a few heavy accidents, the series did put on its traditional form of close, wheel-to-wheel, bumper-to-bumper racing. There were a couple inevitable first-weekend hiccups and it took a bit of adjusting to hear IndyCar Radio venture into calling the oft-complex world of sports car racing, but they figure to come up to speed more on MX-5 as the year progresses.
  • Like Gallagher, another Mazda Road to Indy alum in Jake Eidson swept the weekend in IMSA’s Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama series. The talented driver and Haywood Scholarship recipient out of Littleton, Col. was racing with a special cause on his No. 24 Kelly-Moss Road and Race Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car, Racing for Children’s, which raises money for The Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, along with other Children’s initiatives.
  • IMSA’s Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda races saw lanky star Kenton Koch win for P1 Motorsports in his series return in race one, while Andres Gutierrez took a win for Performance Tech Motorsports in race two within the LMP3 class. Kyle Masson continued his incredible start to 2017 with two more wins for Performance Tech in the MPC class, the former P Lites cars, which Koch drove to the series championship in 2015.
  • The busiest man on the ground this weekend might have been my colleague and friend Ryan Myrehn, who wound up shifting from not planning to attend to the race to getting a call-up for two sets of announcing calls. When Zach Veach got his IndyCar call, it left the aforementioned Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network needing to find its own fill-in and they found one in Michigan U.P. veteran-turned-Indianapolis resident Myrehn, who had done a one-off at Road America last year (coincidentally, a weekend when I called Veach’s Indy Lights win). Myrehn wasted no time in getting acclimated calling IndyCar and Indy Lights sessions for IndyCar Radio all weekend, then shifting back to his natural habitat of sports car racing with last-minute calls in the booth of the IMSA.TV web stream for the PC and GT3 Sunday races. Myrehn’s developed rapidly as a writer and podcast co-host for Sportscar365.com and he seized his opportunity on the ground this weekend from a radio standpoint.

IndyCar is back in action in just five days at Phoenix, while the Mazda Road to Indy is off until the IMS road course weekend in mid-May. MX-5’s next race is also at the IMS road course, but in mid-June with SVRA. For IMSA, Porsche runs next at COTA in early May and PC runs next at Watkins Glen in July.

Alonso, Rossi visit NASCAR AMERICA as part of New York media day (VIDEO)

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The defending Indianapolis 500 champion and the driver who’s generated most of the headlines around this year’s 101st running included NBCSN’s NASCAR AMERICA as part of their New York media tour.

Alexander Rossi and Fernando Alonso joined the show this evening. Rossi, driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda will start third and Alonso, driver of the No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, will roll off from fifth.

The race airs Sunday at 11 a.m. ET on ABC. NBCSN’s coverage of Carb Day is live on Friday from 11 a.m. ET.

 

Indy 500 media day roundup

Photo: IndyCar
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Tuesday marked a busy day for the drivers that make up the field for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. While there was no on-track activity, and won’t be again until Miller Lite Carb Day (5/26 at 11:00 a.m. on NBCSN), the field of 33 were scattered around the country doing a bevy of appearances in the lead up to Sunday’s race. Below is a list drivers and the places they visited.

Bristol, Connecticut/ESPN: James Hinchcliffe
Buffalo: Graham Rahal
Charlotte: Will Power
Chicago: Juan Pablo Montoya
Columbus: Mikhail Aleshin
Dallas-Fort Worth: Tony Kanaan
Dayton: Jack Harvey, Zach Veach
Denver: Buddy Lazier
Detroit: Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, Spencer Pigot
Fort Wayne: Jay Howard, James Davison
Houston: Helio Castroneves
Louisville: Pippa Mann, Ed Jones
Miami-Fort Lauderdale: Oriol Servia, Gabby Chaves, Sebastian Saavedra
Milwaukee: Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball
New York: Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly, Fernando Alonso
Philadelphia: Marco Andretti, Sage Karam
St. Louis: Ed Carpenter, Takuma Sato
San Francisco: JR Hildebrand
Tampa-St. Petersburg: Ryan Hunter-Reay
Toronto: Scott Dixon
Washington: Josef Newgarden

It was a day that began early for all drivers, particularly those in transit. However, drivers like Fernando Alonso, Alexander Rossi, and Conor Daly got a jump on their travels last night.

Meanwhile, Oriol Servia, Sebastian Saavedra, and Gabby Chaves flew out early this morning. Servia used the travel to get in some much needed rest ahead of the busy day.

Unsurprisingly, the driver most in demand was Fernando Alonso, who spoke with such outlets as CNN and Sports Illustrated, among others.

Conor Daly, meanwhile, had a unique run-in with professional wrestling star Ric Flair.

Last year’s pole sitter, James Hinchcliffe, kept himself busy with a visit to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. He also spent time at their Los Angeles location ahead of this year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, a race in which he won.

And not all of the appearances were within the United States. Polesitter Scott Dixon ventured north of the border to Toronto for his media blitz.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, on the other hand, ventured closer to home, as the Florida native spent his day in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area.

 

Some drivers even got a little racing in. For example, Pippa Mann enjoyed an arm chair race (which she won) during her stop in Louisville.

Rossi and Alonso, however, kept their racing in the virtual world.

Perhaps the most interesting activity, however, was reserved for Ed Jones. Before joining teammate Pippa Mann in Louisville, Jones joined Zach Veach and Jack Harvey at American Dairy Association Indiana, where Jones was afforded the chance to milk a cow.

A full rundown of events can be seen via the Verizon IndyCar Series twitter.

 

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Alberico living up to ‘Rising Star’ name in solid start to second year

Alberico and Hale. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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INDIANAPOLIS – There’s something about Neil Alberico in his second year in a Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires series that brings out the best for the 24-year-old out of Los Gatos, Calif. who now lives in San Clemente.

Alberico, the Rising Star Racing-supported driver, always seems to improve in year two and has done so throughout his now six years in the MRTI.

In the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, Alberico switched from JDC Motorsports as a rookie to Cape Motorsports as a sophomore from 2012 to 2013. He improved from seventh in points to second, and won six races that second year.

The same story applied on the next rung in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, although he stayed with Cape for both seasons. Third without a win in 2014 ceded to four wins and second place in 2015.

Arguably the best driver who has not yet won a championship in those series, Alberico has positioned himself nicely for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title this year as Carlin’s emerging lead driver following a solid first few weekends of the year, as he now seeks his first win in Indy Lights to keep the career trend going.

Entering Friday’s Freedom 100, the marquee race of the Indy Lights season (live, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Alberico has opened his 2017 account in the No. 22 Dallara IL-15 Mazda with two thirds, two fourths and a sixth place thus far in six races. He sits fourth in points with 103, 36 back of points leader and fellow Californian Kyle Kaiser. For reference, persistent and continual mechanical issues and engine changes stunted a miserable debut season in 2016, and Alberico only had two top-six finishes all season, and left him 11th in points.

Now though Alberico has ascended to the team leader role at the Trevor Carlin-owned, Colin Hale-managed squad. He drives alongside Zachary Claman De Melo, who switched from Juncos Racing, and rookies Matheus Leist and Garth Rickards. All but Rickards have at least one podium this season as the new-look lineup finds its footing.

“Playing the leadership role in a team, I’m used to it,” Alberico told NBC Sports. “I’m comfortable doing what I can do. And that’s your job as a teammate. You have to be fast yourself, but there’s driver and team championships that exist – and we want to win them both.”

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Alberico credits a healthy offseason program where he undertook a lot of private testing and a year’s worth experience both in these cars and with a team that has led to his growth. He also feels more comfortable with the Indy Lights-specification of Cooper Tires, as he struggled to maximize their pace on an optimal lap in qualifying last year.

“Every year you adapt to new challenges as a driver. Last year as a rookie the tire was a big part of that challenge that I needed to learn,” he said. “But it’s now gone more to my favor – or more what I’m used to.

“Going into the offseason, it’s been nice to have a lot of private test time. When you have a private test, there’s driving stuff you can work on, being good on cold tires, or having new tires to work on. It’s the small little details. When you have private time to work on yourself, that’s the most productive.”

While Alberico is serious about the task at hand, he’s not afraid to have fun and laugh it off at the track. That humor involves his engineer, Geoff Fickling, team manager, Hale, and his supporters in Rising Star Racing.

Alberico and Fickling, a renowned and championship-winning engineer in multiple rungs of the MRTI (Ed Jones with Carlin last year and Gabby Chaves with Belardi in 2014 in Indy Lights, plus Jack Hawksworth with Pelfrey in 2012 in Pro Mazda), live not far apart in San Clemente, and at times, almost spend too much time together.

Alberico and Fickling. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“Geoff and I get along great on a personal level. But sometimes he hates when I’m at his house looking for data – he’s gotta be like, ‘I want to get away, and I can’t get away from my driver!’” Alberico laughed. “But he’s very thorough. He’ll go the extra mile to teach me more what I need to learn.”

Alberico has also started making his Instagram videos must-see-content for the rather hilarious interaction between the laid-back Californian and the focused, often intently serious Hale, who has made Carlin a championship-winner in Indy Lights in just its second season. There’s a confidence Alberico has in providing humor here that may not have existed last year given the struggles that were out of his, or the team’s control.

And then there’s the fact Alberico was the one responsible for bringing in the most out-of-left-field IndyCar sponsor this year, which was awesome, in Loki the Wolfdog. We’ll let Neil take it from here…

“Rising Star Racing is, for those that don’t know, such an awesome initiative through MRTI into IndyCar,” Alberico said. “Spencer Pigot and I have been part of that program, which does a lot for young drivers.

“The Loki deal is just basically a friend of mine with a really famous Instagram dog. Social media has become a huge part of the sport the last several years, and I think sponsor and teams need to adapt at those times.”

Loki was on site at Long Beach and met Pigot there for the first time, thanks to the connection between the Rising Star Racing teammates. It’s not been the only partner Alberico has brought in; Laguna Beach-based modern drug addiction and alcoholism treatment center Oceanfront Recovery is on both Alberico’s Indy Lights car and Pigot’s No. 11 Juncos Racing Chevrolet in the Indianapolis 500.

Pigot and Alberico have been Art Wilmes’ two “primary” drivers for RSR over the years, but not the only ones RSR has supported.

Pigot, Loki the Wolfdog, and “Squad” over their shoulder. Go figure. Photo: IndyCar

There’s others such as last year’s Pro Mazda champion, Indy Lights rookie Aaron Telitz (who actually won on his debut at St. Petersburg and has been overlooked from a media perspective) and another MRTI veteran Jake Eidson in the RSR roster. RSR is set to formally add Oliver Askew, who’s off to a stellar start in USF2000, rather soon.

Telitz (center), Herta (left) and Alberico (right) made it an all-American podium at St. Pete. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

As Alberico heads to the Freedom 100 this weekend, he’s got the continuity from a team and engineering standpoint, and determined to secure his breakthrough win in a year when Telitz, Colton Herta and Nico Jamin have all become Indy Lights race winners.

“I like staying with the same team. When you gel with team mechanics, engineers, you don’t want to go through the new process again,” Alberico said. “That’s why you do better in your second year, and in the third year even more so.

“At the IndyCar level it’s about those 10-plus year relationships – and that’s hard to create as a rookie! So you have to learn and adapt with those with 10-year relationships.

“Here, the wind is a bigger factor. But we have the race lap record! We’re not slow. We like this place. Let’s put ourselves in position to win the race.”

Alberico, who mentioned the wind there, also had the chance to play weatherman for the local CBS affiliate (WTTV-4) here in Indianapolis last week. And that provided him and Telitz a chance to provide some competitive banter beyond what they’ve done on track.

Trio of new entrants add intrigue to INDYCAR’s ownership pool

Juncos (17, leading) and Harding (88) are mixing it up among IndyCar's regulars, like Penske (22). Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – One came to America with almost nothing from Argentina. One has operated a local construction firm and taken his passion from fandom to his own team. And one has been a staple of the sports car scene for more than a dozen years, yet now finally gets to live out his original passion back in the open-wheel world.

Add in an iconic name in McLaren coming back to the Brickyard after a several-decade hiatus and you’ve got three new team owners and one returning major manufacturer name as the team newcomers in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Combined, they field five cars. Ricardo Juncos making his INDYCAR debut with a full two-car effort for Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra. Mike Harding has assembled a new one-car entry on his own for Gabby Chaves. Mike Shank has partnered with Andretti Autosport to run a car for rookie Jack Harvey, while McLaren, Honda and Andretti have combined as branding partners for the Fernando Alonso entry that folks hope will eventually preview a fuller McLaren entry down the road.

The McLaren name is back at Indy, via Andretti Autosport and Honda. Photo: IndyCar

As for the three that are here from a team standpoint, Juncos has the most successful open-wheel pedigree among the three entrants. Any keen-eyed observer of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires will have seen Juncos’ team’s success and preparation showcased in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, championships which they won by the end of their second full season in each. Spencer Pigot won him championships in both back-to-back in the two in 2014 and 2015 and Conor Daly won the Pro Mazda title in 2010; both are Juncos alumni now in IndyCar.

Pigot and Juncos back again. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

But stepping up into IndyCar was always going to be a question of timing, opportunity and financial resources with which to do so. Luckily as KV Racing Technology’s era of operation drew down, so its equipment became available, and Juncos was able to acquire what was needed to step up.

All this was occurring while Juncos was prepping a two-car Indy Lights team as scheduled for 2017, and then completed an eleventh hour deal to keep its Pro Mazda team going after selling off that equipment. But this also comes after Juncos moved into his new 44,000-square foot shop in downtown Speedway, Ind. in December.

“A lot’s been going on – like a storm!” Juncos told NBC Sports. “But we put a full IndyCar team together in two months, from zero, in terms of everything. We assembled and put the cars together, and all these people together, without missing anything on the Pro Mazda or Indy Lights teams.

“Last weekend, when we won both races in Pro Mazda, and were able to win the one in Indy Lights, it’s all about the team effort – we are doing IndyCar without making any issues on these teams. That’s the goal. It was a lot of work, but everything is very good. I’m still learning everyday. I’m excited for what the future can give us, for this race.”

Pigot lights it up after a pit stop. Photo: IndyCar

The crew features a number of KVRT alumni, including Greg Senerius (team manager). The engineering staff includes technical director Tom Brown, an open-wheel and sports car veteran, along with past Indy 500-winning entrant Steve Newey and fellow IndyCar veteran David Cripps, who came up frustratingly short of winning when he was with Panther Racing.

Shank, who brings the majority (but not all) of his Acura NSX GT3 sports car crew to the Andretti team, which keeps the band of lifers together from his shop based outside Columbus in Patalaska, Ohio. They got the chance to go with him to Le Mans last year and now get to add Indy, with Shank, to their resumes. Noting how much people love Shank, his longtime friend and Rolex 24 driver AJ Allmendinger and Allmendinger’s friend and current Shank Acura driver Katherine Legge have been here for support this week.

“It’s not about me. It’s always been about my guys,” Shank told NBC Sports. “My guys have been with me from 10 to 23 years, always standing behind me. A lot of guys have been with other teams, but if we want to do Indy, we want to do it as a present group. Whatever happens, we deal with. We fix it. We do it together.

“I try not to micromanage. For me, it’s step back and let (Tim) Keene (team manager) run the show. With the technical background Andretti has, the whole thing is so very good. Let’s see where we land. This could be interesting.”

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

Interesting it was – albeit for the wrong reasons on the opening day of practice for Harvey. With the car encountering a steering issue, Harvey was shot into the Turn 2 wall exiting the warmup lane and suffered right front damage. That required a rebuild of the car after it was stripped down and then put back together, but the English driver has made methodical progress forward since that point, culminating with 124 laps run on Monday.

Bad as that day was, it’s still a damn sight better than the potential debut Shank could have had in IndyCar in 2012. Shank’s engine plight was made public as Honda and Chevrolet added extra teams saddled with Lotus engines that wanted to switch prior to Indy, which wasn’t in either manufacturer’s game plan. Yet it also left a bitter taste for Shank, who had gone out, purchased a Dallara DW12 chassis, but couldn’t get an engine to run it outside of the Lotus. Had he debuted with that engine, it’s quite possible Shank in IndyCar could have been one-and-done.

In the five years since, INDYCAR’s leadership structure has evolved and it’s likely that without Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, among others than neither Juncos nor Shank would be racing next weekend in the ‘500. Both owners took the time to thank Frye and INDYCAR as a result.

“To be honest one of the things that surprised me the most is how professional they are,” Juncos said. “Mark Miles, Jay Frye, everyone in INDYCAR, marketing, to the PR guys. Bill van de Sandt invited us to T&S and Race Control so I could have an idea! They pushed me to do this.

“I knew it was probably the right opportunity at the right time. But it was still a big, big task. Jay Frye gave me a bit of confidence and support that this is the right thing to do. I’m so pleased to have those guys. The support is massive, and for drivers to believe in our program.”

“It’s a deep exhale! What we went through, no one should have to go,” Shank explained. “There’s two people I have to thank: Jay Frye and Mark Sibla have championed us. They came and saw me after the 2017 Rolex and said, ‘If you want to come here, let’s work it out with a team since I don’t have a car.’ But they were very instrumental. They always answer their phones.”

Chaves has a chance with Harding. Photo: IndyCar

If Juncos and Shank have been known from their pedigree in other series, Harding’s arrival is more of a surprise because it comes largely out of left field. But that’s not a bad thing.

With a construction background by trade with the Harding Group, Harding had always been a fan of the Indianapolis 500. Yet after last year’s 100th running, he took a big leap of faith in tandem with team manager Larry Curry to turn that fandom into an actual program, and purchase two new Dallaras as a result, complete with Harding’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. fandom producing a stylized No. 88 Chevrolet. And for good measure, Al Unser Jr. is working with the team as a driver coach.

“I had gone away from racing, other than Indy-only things,” Curry told NBC Sports. “I worked for Mike. Mike asked me if I was gonna do last year’s 500. I told him, ‘But I work for you!’ ‘You need to go do it,’ he said. ‘You’ve been there so many years. You have to do it. I’ll give you off whatever time you need.’

“So I did, and the race is over, we’re up in the suite talking. He said, ‘What do you think about doing this? What do you think about us doing our own deal?’ I just said right away, ‘Mike, it’s very extensive.’ He replied, ‘I never asked that. I asked, would you do it for me.’ But you know how it is, there’s a lot of excitement in May… this’ll go away. Guess what, it didn’t!”

Harding backed that up nicely. “Larry worked for me for the last couple years, and he mentored Tony Stewart,” he said. “So I told him, ‘What do you think about starting a team this year?’ And he was all gung ho for it. We didn’t know if it’d really happen for it, but it came through.”

One of the things that’s additionally nice about all three of these entrants is their push to provide opportunities for recent Mazda Road to Indy graduates. Pigot, 23, completes a 15-year journey with Juncos that began in karting together. Saavedra, a seemingly eternal 26, has been in-and-out of IndyCar for parts of seven seasons; this is his seventh team he’s attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 with.

Harding runs Chaves, who edged Harvey, Shank’s driver, for the 2014 Indy Lights title on a tiebreaker.

All of the team owners are so thrilled with the upside and potential of their young stars.

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

“It’s crazy obviously!” Juncos laughed. “These things have only happened a few times in history. For me, 15 years ago, coming from Argentina, in karts and he’s 9 years old. Now we’re living this. Sometimes things happen in humanity, which luckily happened for us. Without losing the focus, enjoy this, because it’s a great story of the team, of Spencer, of both of us together. For whatever reason, it’s happening.”

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

“Having Jack, it’s part of the package. We’re all one kit together,” Shank said. “Jack, you’re on my side now. My guys are the same way. They’ll support him good and bad.”

“Mike Hull from Ganassi recommended Gabby Chaves to us, he’s the best one out there,” Harding said. “I set up an interview with Gabby and couldn’t believe how mature this 23-year-old man was. I think we made the right decision.”

Al Unser Jr. and Gabby Chaves. Photo: IndyCar

Naturally, debuting is one thing but future development and staying power is the ultimate goal here.

Juncos has long harbored ambitions of a full-time IndyCar program, Shank has now opened the doors to one in addition to his continued, dedicated sports car presence, and Harding already seems set to race at least twice more this year.

For this race, Chaves has qualified the best in 25th for Harding, with Harvey in 27th for Shank and Andretti, then the Juncos pair of Pigot (29th) and Saavedra (31st) a little further behind. Both of the Juncos cars had slow fourth laps in qualifying; Juncos has pushed through with a rebuild of Pigot’s primary car from Friday to Saturday, working through the night to get the car ready to go for Pigot to qualify.

With only eight full-time owners now, and with three of them in Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti fielding 12 full-time cars of 21 and 15 of 33 at Indy, spreading the car count among other teams is one of INDYCAR’s key goals for 2018 and beyond.

“I think it’s really key,” said Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company Hulman & Co. “I don’t think that’s an economic driver for us, but it’s very healthy to have more diversity in our owner group.

“We love Roger, we love Michael, we love Chip … and we love all the rest of our current paddock. But more owners being invested in the series is a healthier thing. It’s very good.

“Besides these three when you have Zak Brown talking about a couple cars, not just at the Indy 500 but INDYCAR, it’s a very exciting thing.”