Charlie Kimball

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Ganassi team confident amid high expectations for Indy 500

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Chip Ganassi Racing was uncharacteristically quiet during last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Tony Kanaan was the only member of the team to lead laps, heading the field for 19 circuits. Charlie Kimball took advantage of a strategy similar to winner Alexander Rossi’s to finish fifth, while Scott Dixon was never in contention much of the day and finished eighth. Max Chilton, in his first “500,” soldiered home in 15th.

For the 101st running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the team has a much different outcome in mind. Once again partnered with Honda, which had the superior speedway package last year, Chip Ganassi’s outfit appears to be in a much stronger position heading into this year’s race.

Most notably, Scott Dixon captured the pole, with Tony Kanaan joining him in the Fast Nine shootout before qualifying seventh. And while Chilton and Kimball start 15th and 16th, they could easily be dark horses heading into race day.

Team owner Chip Ganassi was bursting with enthusiasm when asked about returning Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a May 19 press conference.

“I mean, I’m excited. I mean I think — you know, when you come back here to Indianapolis, it’s the real thing. It’s what we’re all about. It’s why we got in this sport in the first place, is because of the Indianapolis 500. We want to win this race, and that’s what we’re here to do,” he asserted.

Mike Hull, managing director of the Verizon IndyCar Series side of Chip Ganassi’s operation, detailed the team’s success, and potential for more success, is down to people and communication, and that on the driving front, he thinks they have all their bases covered.

“In order for race drivers to win races, they have to support their teammates and their teammates have to give very unselfishly to each other when you race at a major event like this one,” Hull explained. “And it’s really, really neat to see these four drivers interact with each other knowing full well that one of the other ones could win. That’s very special, and that’s what we have at Chip Ganassi Racing.”

Dixon, the polesitter and holder of one of the fastest speeds Indianapolis Motor Speedway has seen since 1996, is not only Ganassi’s longest tenured driver but the team’s best bet for success on race day, in tandem with engineer Chris Simmons. Dixon alluded to missed opportunities (such as in 2015, when an overheating problem dropped him from the lead late in the race, and in 2011, when fuel strategy put paid to his chances) as added motivation to secure his second “500” triumph.

Scott Dixon might be the favorite going into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. Photo: Indycar

“I think we came up short in a couple where we could have maybe stolen a couple wins there which would have definitely helped that list. But yeah, you know, it’s all focused right now on this event and preparing as well as we can,” he said.

“I think the first couple of days were definitely trying in a lot of ways but I think we found some good headway, but it’s the goal. We finished second here a couple of times and it’s almost the worst place to finish when you come so close, especially under caution.”

One might assume that as a former winner, Dixon may hold a mental edge on most of the field. But, he later revealed that isn’t necessarily the case.

“Every year is very different. The target constantly moves. The situations change. How the race plays out changes,” he said. “I think because you’ve had the sense and the feeling of that victory, you want it that much more again. So I think it maybe even adds to it.”

Teammate Tony Kanaan, who won this race in 2013, echoed those sentiments. “To me every year it’s like the first year,” he added. “I mean, I don’t get to think that I won this thing until Monday. If everything goes wrong, I might, you know, just say ‘All right, at least I won one.’ That’s the way I really think. But up until then I still get as nervous as I was the first time. I still want to win as bad as if I hadn’t won.”

Tony Kanaan is looking for his second Indy 500 triumph. Photo: IndyCar

So far, Kanaan has endured a difficult 2017 campaign. With only two finishes inside the top ten, he languishes back in 11th in the championship. Still, he recognizes that this year presents as strong a chance as he’s ever had at Indianapolis, and the strength of Ganassi’s organization creates a heightened sense of pressure to perform.

“I got extremely lucky when after I won the “500” I got hired by Chip and Mike’s organization. I think I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. So they cut my work in half by doing that,” he added. “They give me great cars, great people, and it’s just an awesome place to be. So for me, you know, I think I have one of my best shots this year.”

Outside of Dixon and Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton are often the overlooked men of Chip Ganassi’s four-car armada. However, each has shown the potential for success.

Kimball, a former IndyCar race winner, has very quietly established himself at the Indy 500 with consecutive finishes inside the top five (third in 2015 and fifth in 2016) to go along with two other finishes inside the top ten (eighth in 2012, ninth in 2013). Like Kanaan, Kimball has endured a difficult 2017 season, one in which he didn’t even make it through the opening lap in any race until Round 3 at Barber Motorsports Park.

Charlie Kimball has quietly put together a strong record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: IndyCar

Kimball explained that his success is down to a simple love of the race track, and that the surrounding team may be the most vital component to ending the day in victory lane.

“I love racing around here. And on Race Day the fact that it’s a 500-mile event: it’s challenging mentally, physically, not just for us as drivers but especially for the teams, the guys on the stand, the engineers, the strategists, the guys, the crew that go over the wall. I mean, that focus that they need for those six, seven-plus stops is critical to the job we do on the racetrack,” he said.

And for Max Chilton, who has raced at such world-renowned events as the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, competing at the Indy 500 left an indelible impression on him.

“I’ve done some big races, Le Mans 24 Hours, Monaco Grand Prix a number of times, but this one stands out last year,” he said. “(It was) the 100th running of the biggest race we’ve ever had here. To me that was still very incredible.”

An Indianapolis 500 victory would the first career IndyCar win for Chilton. Photo: IndyCar

While a victory for him would be an upset of sorts, Chilton knows he has everything he needs to do so. “I’m going to work as hard as I can. I feel like we got the car in a good place (in practice) and I can’t wait to be here on the 28th of May and be zooming around,” said the Briton, who was fastest during Monday practice.

The team has moved a number of pieces around – Kanaan and Kimball swapped engineers with Eric Cowdin coming back to Kanaan and Todd Malloy going over to Kimball – and other crew members have also been rotated. But as Hull explained, that comes from the strength of depth within the organization based on Woodland Drive in Indianapolis.

“We’re lucky, we have quality people in all positions, so we can do that,” Hull said. “But what it does is it provides fresh thinking even though the thinking is in the same room. And it’s all about the interaction of people. That’s what teamwork is all about and teams of people are all about. They have to pinch each other every day to remember what the priority actually is, and our priority is to win. We try to match the people up that we think can do that.”

An Indy 500 victory in 2017 would be the fifth for Chip Ganassi Racing, the previous four coming at the hands of Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Scott Dixon (2008), and Dario Franchitti (2010, 2012).

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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.”

Some drama emerges in the LBC for IndyCar after a couple incidents

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – There were a couple incidents during Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach that drew some headlines and some angry messages from participants in the second Verizon IndyCar Series race of the year.

#INDYRIVALS has been retired from active usage by IndyCar’s social media team, but still seemed prevalent on Sunday.

POWER VS. KIMBALL

The opening lap contact between Charlie Kimball and Will Power was the second between the two of them in a four-race span, albeit spread over seven months since Watkins Glen on Labor Day last September and now Sunday in Long Beach.

Power blamed Kimball then for contacting him and did so again on Sunday after the two collided exiting the fountain section, Turn 3 into Turn 4. Power was alongside Kimball on corner exit of the fountain but Kimball got a better run on exit to the outside. Although Power was far enough alongside going into Turn 4 on the inside, Kimball turned in and naturally, they collided.

This was Kimball’s second first-lap incident in as many races to open the 2017 season after also having contact with Graham Rahal at St. Petersburg.

Power went off on Kimball to Autoweek’s Bruce Martin: “This guy is a big problem,” Power told Autoweek. “He always has been.”

Kimball, when told of Power’s comments, told Martin: “He’s upset with me? If Will wants to talk to me he can come talk to me. He was behind me at that point wheel-to-wheel, right-rear to left-front. It’s hard to know he is still there, having gotten the better drive off of turn three.”

BOURDAIS VS. FLYING DEBRIS 

Sebastien Bourdais finished second on Sunday but had one heck of a first lap. A piece of wing end fence flew off from another car, which forced him to duck in his car. Meanwhile within the same lap, Bourdais was two cars behind the Power/Kimball incident. His No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Honda incurred rear wing damage which forced their hand and required an unscheduled stop for repairs.

“At the end of the day, we had a good start. Unfortunately, a big piece of endplate or whatever it was flew off, and I ducked it,” Bourdais said. “But the rear wings couldn’t do the same, so it took pretty much the whole left rear of the rear wing and endplate and left rear winglet off.

“We were, like, debating in the pits whether we were going to stop or not, because obviously at that point we’re, like, 10th, something. It’s like, Man, that really hurts. But we really didn’t have a choice, there was too much damage to the car.

“We came in, changed the whole rear assembly, put on the red tires, the red Firestone tires, and filled the car up. So from there we had a bit less fuel saving, but not obviously much. We just, you know, decided to stick with our two-stop strategy, then kind of made it work. Made steady progress through the race.”

ALESHIN VS. KANAAN, HILDEBRAND

Rightly or wrongly, the “Mad Russian” Mikhail Aleshin is declaring his candidacy to be the series’ new “black hat” after two rounds of contact himself in the first two races, both times with the same guy.

His and Tony Kanaan’s collision at St. Petersburg triggered a pivotal caution flag there that changed the running order of the race and effectively inverted the field.

A second collision occurred Sunday at Long Beach, leaving Kanaan with a flat left rear tire.

Kanaan didn’t mention Aleshin by name in a tweet he wrote Sunday night but left no doubt who he was referring to: “Getting hit by the same guy 2 races in a row it’s getting old.”

The contact between Aleshin and JR Hildebrand on the last lap, meanwhile, triggered a blocking penalty and a one-spot dock for Aleshin after the checkered flag. Meanwhile Hildebrand sustained a broken bone in his left hand from the contact.

Kanaan wasn’t the only Ganassi person frustrated Sunday – Emma Dixon posted but later deleted several tweets during INDYCAR’s six-lap yellow to remove Alexander Rossi’s stopped car – in a day where Ganassi’s team lost another potential win to start 2017.

Scott Dixon explained the frustration to NBCSN after the race: “(Two stops) was always the plan. I’m not sure what changed. Maybe the team thought a caution would come out. You play with fire. We gave the race away at that point. It got a little bit tougher with the NTT Data car later in the race. No one passed unless there was slower lapped traffic. It’s hard to swallow that one. It was going to be an easy victory otherwise.”

Honda teams resurgent in St. Petersburg

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The troubles with Honda’s aero kit have been well documented. And even with Chip Ganassi Racing back under the Honda umbrella, the freeze in aerodynamic development led many to think that things wouldn’t be much better in 2017.

However, if Friday practice and Saturday qualifying were any indication, Honda has found some serious speed. Honda entries led all three practice sessions (Marco Andretti led the first session, and Scott Dixon led the second and third sessions) and Hondas took eight of the top ten spots in qualifying for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Further, four Hondas made the Firestone Fast Six, their best qualifying performance since the aero kit era began in 2015.

Surprisingly, though, Dixon expressed disappointment. As he explained, an error on his behalf may have cost him the pole. “That was just on me unfortunately. We have a super fast car and should have been on pole,” he asserted. “I just messed up a little on my fastest lap there. I’m obviously disappointed, but the team has four fast cars. We’re working together great with Honda and I can’t wait to start the race tomorrow. Hopefully we’ll have the GE car up front when it counts.”

Takuma Sato, who qualified fifth, detailed that despite a very small window with which to work, Honda has clearly made gains. “It’s really a great job from Honda over the course of the winter. I know it’s a frozen package. We can do very little things, but I think engine development as well as how you try and use the car and the package, I think today is a result that we are really coming back in strong,” said the Andretti Autosport driver.

James Hinchcliffe leads teammate Mikhail Aleshin. Photo: IndyCar

James Hinchcliffe, who qualified third, detailed that, even though Chevrolet held the upper hand, no one within Honda or its IndyCar teams were laying down. “We were always pushing and always trying to improve. Certainly if you look at the results, it was leaning in (Chevrolet’s) favor for a while, but Honda is not one to lay down and just take a beating, so yeah, I think you’ve seen a lot of that.”

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Driver also noted that the aero kit freeze actually helped the Honda teams further understand their aerodynamics as the package went unchanged. “Coming into the start of ’16, all the Honda teams were dealing with a brand new aero kit. We were doing a second consecutive year of starting from scratch essentially where the other manufacturer wasn’t going through that. So now that we’ve got a year of development under it, it was natural that we were going to gain more.”

The speed of Honda’s aero and engine package is further exemplified in Alexander Rossi and Charlie Kimball. While neither advanced to the Firestone Fast Six, both enjoyed strong runs to qualify seventh (Rossi) and ninth (Kimball). Yet, neither was satisfied. “I’m disappointed to miss the Firestone Fast Six because I know that we’re quickest on the (Firestone primary) blacks in that second run before going to (alternate) reds. I think the potential is there, we just didn’t put it together,” said Rossi, who actually had his best qualifying result on a road/street course.

Kimball, too, was unhappy with a seemingly strong qualifying result. “I’m disappointed with qualifying ninth,” said he Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing driver. “I think coming into the weekend my goal was to qualify in the top 10 and finish in the top five. We’re obviously already hitting that goal with starting ninth, but after the last couple of days I think we’ve been faster than where we’re starting tomorrow.”

Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg rolls off at 12:30 p.m. ET.

IndyCar 2017 team preview: Chip Ganassi Racing

No Target, no Chevrolet. The Honda return and more questions await Ganassi. Photo: IndyCar
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MotorSportsTalk looks through the teams competing in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Chip Ganassi Racing is next up with its fearsome foursome, in what will be a big transition season as the team shifts back to the manufacturer that has delivered it the most glory in the last 20-plus years, Honda.

Drivers (Engineer, Strategist)

Drivers

8-Max Chilton (Brandon Fry, Julian Robertson)
9-Scott Dixon (Chris Simmons, Mike Hull)
10-Tony Kanaan (Todd Malloy, Barry Wanser)
83-Charlie Kimball (Eric Cowdin, Scott Harner)

Manufacturer/aero kit: Honda

Sponsors: Arthur J. Gallagher (No. 8), TBA (No. 9), NTT Data, 7 Eleven (No. 10), Tresiba (No. 83)

Tony Kanaan remains solid. Photo: IndyCar
Tony Kanaan remains solid. Photo: IndyCar

What went right in 2016: Dixon continued winning multiple races, Kanaan’s form was probably the best its been in three seasons at Ganassi, Kimball drastically improved his qualifying which produced better results, and Chilton brought a fresh perspective to the fourth seat. 

What went wrong in 2016: There were too many mistakes and mechanical issues that blunted Dixon’s title hopes. None of the other three won races and that left Ganassi at a 10-2 win deficit to Penske with equal Chevrolet aero kits and engines. Kimball’s determination occasionally ruffled feathers, while Chilton struggled to convert respectable qualifying efforts into decent results.

How does Kimball continue his gradual growth? Photo: IndyCar
How does Kimball continue his gradual growth? Photo: IndyCar

What’s changed for 2017: The biggest and most obvious change is the swap to Honda aero kits and engines, and there’s no Target on Dixon’s car. Some crew swapping occurs throughout the four cars as well, but for only the second time since Ganassi expanded to four cars in 2011, the team has the same four drivers returning for another season (2011 to 2012).

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: Develop and grow with the Honda package, and hopefully get it sorted sooner rather than later. As is a common refrain, Dixon’s title hopes would be helped by a faster start, and the other three members of the team will look for further podiums and wins. Dixon and perhaps Kanaan would keep them in title contention; success at the double points Indianapolis 500 with a better package will help that cause.

Max Chilton needs to improve in 2017. Photo: IndyCar
Max Chilton needs to improve in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

MST PREDICTIONS

Tony DiZinno: A motivated Scott Dixon will remain in title contention down to the final race but come up short of his fifth title, despite his tendency of winning titles in odd years of late (2013, 2015). The Honda package may be better but will not be enough to overcome the fleet of Penske drivers, and their Chevrolets, this season. Tony Kanaan will end his three-year winless drought with his second Indianapolis 500 victory, because the combination of TK, engineer Todd Malloy and the Honda super speedway aero kit and power unit is simply deadly on paper. Much as I like Kimball, I worry he’ll regress a bit and fall out of the top-10 in points this season, while Chilton will score his first top-five finish this year but still struggle to break into the top-15 in points.

Kyle Lavigne: The success of Chip Ganassi Racing in 2017 will come down to how quickly they get their hands around Honda’s aero package, but they should get to speed relatively quickly. One area where they should improve is the super speedway package, chiefly at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 2016, only Tony Kanaan showed enough speed to challenge for victory. Expect that to change in 2017.

Whether or not a drive from the Ganassi camp will challenge for the championship is a different story and will depend on the team’s ability to improve Honda’s road/street course package. This will likely happen, given the might of the Chip Ganassi organization, but it might too big of an ask for one or multiple drivers from this stable to enter the Sonoma finale within reach of the championship. But, history tells us to never bet against people like Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan. Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton should be in the mix, albeit on a less consistent basis.

Luke Smith: After a tough 2016 that yielded only two victories and no drivers breaking into the top five in the points, Chip Ganassi Racing needs a big year. The switch to Honda is an interesting one, and anything less than being the top Honda team would be a failure. There will naturally be an adjustment period though.

Scott Dixon remains an ever-potent force, but I don’t see a fifth title coming his way this year, although he will make the top five in points and take a handful of wins. Kanaan should break his win drought, and I’ll even tip Charlie Kimball to return to winner’s circle this year, perhaps late in the season. As for Max Chilton? Let’s see what season two brings. But I’d be surprised if he isn’t the lowest-ranking Ganassi driver in the end-of-year standings once again.