Ed Jones is a dark horse on Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

Recent MRTI grads comprise significant chunk of Indy 500 field

Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – With the current crop of established veteran Verizon IndyCar Series drivers in their early 30s to early 40s, it’s worth asking when the next generation of drivers will properly emerge in a “changing of the guard.”

It took time for IndyCar to move on from the Andretti, Unser, Rahal, Foyt, Mears, Fittipaldi, Sullivan and more group of names, as most retired into the 1990s. In their place have come the Castroneves, Kanaan, Montoya, Dixon, Power, Hunter-Reay, Bourdais and Pagenauds of the world, having debuted between the late 1990s and mid-2000s.

There’s a distinct feel this Indianapolis 500 though that the next verge of talent is on the horizon, if not this year then in the next two to three years to come.

The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires presence in this year’s Indianapolis 500 is deep and detailed. Some 14 of the 33 drivers have raced in the series since its formal 2010 introduction, and others have raced in previous American open-wheel ladder championships (namely Formula Atlantic or Indy Lights in its prior iteration) and 24 Mazda Road to Indy alumni in the field all told.

It might, in fact, be easier to count the drivers racing Sunday who don’t have any North American open-wheel ladder experience.

It’s the recent grads though who have a good chance in this race, which for the moment is their only confirmed race of 2017, who otherwise have nothing to lose.

Five of the last six Indy Lights champions are in the field, dating to 2011. Josef Newgarden and Ed Jones are the two full-time drivers, Spencer Pigot races most events as road/street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing while he’s since switched to Juncos Racing for this race only, while past teammates and back-to-back champions Sage Karam and Gabby Chaves are looking to re-establish themselves as full-time IndyCar competitors after only having parts of one full season.

The others who’ve raced in the Road to Indy and graduated from 2010 to 2016 and are in this year’s field include two rookies, Zach Veach and Jack Harvey, A.J. Foyt Enterprises teammates Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, several-time IndyCar race winner James Hinchcliffe, Ganassi’s Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball, Juncos’ Sebastian Saavedra, and Dale Coyne Racing’s Pippa Mann.

This list doesn’t include two other notables in Matthew Brabham and RC Enerson, who impressed in limited 2016 IndyCar starts, but aren’t in this year’s Indianapolis 500 owing to lack of finances, not lack of talent.

ED JONES AND COYNE LEAD THE WAY FROM P11

It’s been Jones who’s been the underrated, and under-appreciated, star of the month. The Dubai-based Brit may be this year’s only full-season rookie, but has been impressive from the off at Dale Coyne Racing. With several laps turned over 230 mph and both pace and patience in traffic, the defending Indy Lights champion and Mazda scholarship recipient is arguably the top darkhorse Sunday from P11 in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda. And it’s not like a rookie started 11th and won last year’s race or anything… (Alexander Rossi did, hence the setup).

Jones flies the flag as IndyCar’s lone full season rookie in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

“I guess the heat made the car a bit more difficult to drive because this morning in practice we rolled out and did four laps and were like ‘let’s park it, that’s the perfect car,'” Jones said after qualifying. “But nonetheless, it was a great job by the guys who made some changes from yesterday. Thanks to the team, Dale, my engineers.

“Obviously, it was a tough day yesterday, but the team spirit is so strong. It’s great to be a part of this team. It’s tough, like they say with racing you’re always up and down. Especially around here, a place where you’ve got to treat it with respect. Any tiny mistake or any small difference can cost you a huge amount. I’m just proud to be representing this team, hopefully we can move further up in the race.”

TWO MRTI LEGACY STARS REUNITE; PIGOT AND JUNCOS BACK TOGETHER

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

Rising Star Racing-supported driver Pigot, inadvertently, gets his start in this year’s ‘500 with a MRTI graduate team in Juncos Racing, thus completing the journey for Argentine team owner Ricardo Juncos into IndyCar. Rarely, if ever, has a story been written where a driver began with a team in karting and the two grew together simultaneously to where now he’s driving for Juncos in its debut. Despite a crash in practice, the spirit of the Juncos team shone through with a rebuild overnight, and Pigot’s return in qualifying spoke volumes.

“I just got a little loose. I exited Turn 1. It was a shame, because we had a decent run going,” Pigot said. “It might have been high-20s, which from Friday, I would’ve been all right with after that crash. All that matters is we’re in the race, and I was able to save the car there in Turn 1. I’ve got to thank the guys. They’ve worked a lot of long hours to get me back out here.”

“It’s crazy! So 15 years ago, coming from Argentina, in karts and he’s 9 years old,” Juncos reflected. “Now we’re living this dream. Without losing the focus on the task, we need to enjoy this, because it’s a great story of the team, of Spencer, and of both of them together. For whatever reason, it’s happening.”

RECENT INDY LIGHTS CHAMPS, WINNERS LOOK TO MOVE UP FULLY

Chaves (88, 2014) and Hildebrand (21, 2009) are past Indy Lights champs in the field. Photo: IndyCar

Chaves has the most official success in IndyCar among the champions from the last few years. The Colombian American parlayed the 2014 Indy Lights title into both the series and Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year honors in 2015, and might have won at Pocono had it not been for an engine issue driving on a shoestring budget for Bryan Herta Autosport. But financial pitfalls hit before 2016, leaving him scrambling for a ride and then left to watch as Alexander Rossi won the Indy 500.

Now with series debutante Mike Harding, Chaves says this is another great opportunity for him to continue and show he – and the team – belong.

Al Unser Jr. and Gabby Chaves. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s huge… it’s what it’s all about, right?” Chaves said. “It’s about keeping the sport going, getting some new faces in it. There are definitely a lot of guys who can stick around and be here for a while.”

Veach, one of Chaves’ closer friends and fellow IndyCar two-seater driver, makes his Indianapolis 500 debut in a third car for Foyt. The journey’s been harder for him and Harvey, perhaps, as they didn’t win an Indy Lights title and the Mazda advancement scholarship that goes with it. But it hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his dream.

Veach looks to impress in third car for AJ Foyt Racing. Photo: IndyCar

“When I talked to AJ Foyt Racing, one of the first things they mentioned was my drive at Road America last year, when I won with a car that wasn’t handling that great, and my dominant win at Watkins Glen,” Veach explained. “I think that showed them a spark of what I can do and that’s what the Mazda Road to Indy has made easy. You have the confidence to walk up to teams because they’re familiar with your past and your lifestyle.”

Harvey, like Veach, came up just short of an Indy Lights title. Chaves beat him to the 2014 title on a tiebreak and then in 2015, Harvey’s fast start faded down the stretch as Pigot and Jones closed stronger. Nonetheless, he’s happy to be back in a seat after it’s been nearly two years since his last start, in Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport’s car.

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

“The ladder we all know rewards winning,” Harvey said. “For people like Zach and I especially, we did everything right to win, but the cards didn’t fall our way. It reflects on us as people, how hard we’ve worked to get here. We’ve kept grinding and got the opportunities we have.”

THE FACTORY SPORTS CAR STAR AND YOUNG CHARGER BACK AGAIN

Karam looks to make the most of his one scheduled 2017 IndyCar start. Photo: IndyCar

Karam won both the USF2000 and Indy Lights titles and has been trying to stick full-time in IndyCar for four years. Now a factory driver for the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Indianapolis is always a welcome comeback for the 22-year-old out of Nazareth, who prepares for his fourth ‘500 as the youngest driver in the field, with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

“It feels good to have some races under my belt with Lexus and Scott this year including the Daytona 24, Sebring, Long Beach and COTA,” said Karam. “I feel that doing those races has made me more relaxed behind the wheel coming to Indy. Last year, without some racing before Indy, I thought I got too anxious in the 500 when I was towards the front. I really wanted to lead the race.”

Many of the names mentioned in this piece aren’t household names yet. But they are all drivers in their 20s who have potential staying power for years to come.

Supplanting the veterans isn’t something that comes easily, but given what Josef Newgarden has accomplished with time, breaking into the top-five in points and winning multiple races as he’s into his sixth season now, and has arrived at Team Penske at age 26.

None of the other recent graduates have more than three years experience in IndyCar. But they’re working towards that point, and Sunday’s race provides a great shot where an unheralded name or two emerges on a national stage.

Dixon finally breaks through at Road America

Getty Images
Leave a comment

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – After a year of near misses and frustration, Scott Dixon has finally captured his first win of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

The driver of the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing has won today’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America after leading 24 of 55 laps, and holding off a late charge from Josef Newgarden, best of Team Penske’s quartet.

The win also provides Mike Hull a victory on his 25-year anniversary with the team, a special moment. Dixon is now the eighth winner of the year, and the only active track where Dixon hadn’t led a lap – until today.

Hull made an excellent strategic decision to go with Firestone’s red alternate tires on the second-to-last stint. Following a restart after Takuma Sato spun at the Kink, Dixon then made a spectacular move to Newgarden’s outside going into Turn 1, and completing the move on exit. Newgarden had no counter as he was on Firestone’s blacks at that point.

Newgarden led home teammates Helio Castroneves, who fell to third from the pole, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, as Penske ended second, third, fourth and fifth after sweeping the top four spots on the grid.

Charlie Kimball parlayed an off-sequence strategy to jump up to sixth, with Ed Jones, Graham Rahal, Max Chilton and Mikhail Aleshin completing the top 10.

Tony Kanaan had a heavy accident at the Kink but got out of his car, in the race’s one major incident.

More to follow…

Stroll rewarded with shoey after first F1 podium in Baku (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

Lance Stroll was “lost for words” after becoming the second-youngest Formula 1 podium finisher in Sunday’s chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, crossing the line third for Williams.

Stroll qualified eighth in Baku before managing to rise up the order as a race of attrition set in at the front, with title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel both dropping back after coming to blows.

Stroll was left running second behind Daniel Ricciardo once Hamilton had pitted for repairs and Vettel had served his penalty, but had Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas bearing down through the closing stages.

In a drag race at the line, Bottas nosed ahead of Stroll by just 0.1 seconds to deny the Williams driver P2, but he was nevertheless able to hang on to third place.

Coming just two weeks after his maiden F1 points finish and following a barrage of criticism in the early part of the year, Stroll was overjoyed with the result.

“I’m just lost for words right now. I don’t even know what to say,” Stroll said.

“I can’t quite realize what just happened. It was a hectic race, people crashing and we stayed out of trouble, I kept my head cool and took it to the end.

“I lost out to Valtteri in the end. I reckon that was probably one of the closest finishes of all time! We were side-by-side across the finish line.

“What a race. I couldn’t believe coming into the weekend that I would be standing on the podium, it’s so amazing.”

Joining race winner and shoey extraordinaire Ricciardo on the podium, Stroll became the latest driver to take part in F1’s strangest tradition – albeit only after Ricciardo checked he was old enough.

Stroll completed the shoey like a champ, and was also informed that he had won the online Driver of the Day vote.

The result also saw Stroll became Canada’s first podium finisher since Jacques Villeneuve in 2001, as well as being the youngest ever rookie to finish in the top three.

Stroll missed out on the overall youngest podium record by 11 days to Max Verstappen, who won last year’s Spanish Grand Prix during his second season of racing in F1.

Ricciardo doubted Baku F1 win was possible, left ‘speechless’ on podium

Leave a comment

A stunned Daniel Ricciardo was left speechless on the podium after claiming his fifth Formula 1 victory in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, navigating a crazy race that he started from 10th on the grid.

Ricciardo survived three safety car periods, two early pit stops and a red flag stoppage to rise through the order and capitalize on trouble for title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, with both dropping back down the order after dominating early on.

Ricciardo moved into the lead when Vettel was forced to serve a penalty for dangerous driving, and went unchallenged en route to victory in Baku from there, finishing 3.9 seconds clear of the pack.

Struggling to form his words initially, Ricciardo said he only thought a podium was within reach after the restart, only for the issues for the leaders to hand him the race win.

“We know there was a chance of the podium after the restart, but then we heard what happened with Lewis and Seb. It was just a crazy race,” Ricciardo said.

“I made an unplanned stop at the beginning. After a few laps we had some debris in the brakes, so we had to stop and clean it. We dropped to 17th place.

“So did I think then that we could win? Absolutely not. I would have put all my money on it that this was very unlikely.

“A crazy race. This is the race we expected last year, with all the safety cars and all the chaos, and we got it this year.”

Ricciardo’s victory came after he crashed out of qualifying on Saturday evening in Baku, resigning him to a P10 start, but was pleased to make up for it in style.

“Yesterday I was disappointed with the mistake. I knew today would be a different outcome,” Ricciardo said.

“I said it yesterday that we had to stay out of trouble and it certainly paid off today. A big thanks to the team, it was nice to get one car home and on the podium.

“I’m honestly speechless. After the race on the cool down lap, I was kind of just giggling like a school boy.”

WATCH LIVE: KOHLER Grand Prix at 12 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Road America this weekend, with the now 55-lap KOHLER Grand Prix this afternoon.

You can watch it LIVE on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app starting at 11 a.m. CT and local time, noon ET.

Coverage has moved up half an hour from a planned 12:30 p.m. ET start time with the Formula 1 race from Azerbaijan running long.

This moves the Indy Lights second race of the weekend, which was scheduled for 11:30 a.m. ET, with Jake Query and Anders Krohn in the booth and Hargitt in pit lane.

Coverage will run through to 3:30 p.m. ET. INDYCAR: NEXT at the 101st Indianapolis 500 is scheduled from 3:30 to 4 p.m. ET.

Kevin Lee is on the call along with analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy, with Marty Snider, Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller in the pits.

Helio Castroneves secured the pole position for the race. The full qualifying report is linked here.