Charlie Kimball

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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.

Inside the rink: Charlie Kimball, Honda take on NHL All-Star Game

All photos courtesy Charlie Kimball
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Editor’s note: Charlie Kimball, driver of the No. 83 Tresiba Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, took over the Verizon IndyCar Series Instagram and Snapchat social media accounts during the NHL All-Star Game at STAPLES Center this weekend in Los Angeles. Honda is the official vehicle of the NHL. While there, Kimball was also keeping apprised of his Ganassi and Honda teammates racing at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Kimball recounts his reflections of the weekend on ice and watching the cars metaphorically on ice, when speaking to MotorSportsTalk editor Tony DiZinno.

One of my many interests outside the cockpit is watching hockey, and so to have the opportunity to take in the NHL All-Star Game presented by Honda not far from my hometown in Los Angeles was something I really appreciated having the chance to do.

As drivers, we’re always working to engage with our fans via social media. But to be honest, I’d never done anything as in-depth as a full account takeover, which I did this weekend for IndyCar. So this was a deeper dive into taking over a full social media presence, compared to just my own, for an in-depth weekend. For me, it was a neat way to express something I’ve been super interested in, and has ties to racing on NBCSN and with Honda. This was a chance for me to be able to share a little bit of what I like other than racing, with non-traditional hockey fans.

The celebrity game and skills competition was fun to watch, and very impressive. Saturday night after the skills competition, there was a blink-182 concert, and you almost felt transplanted back in time because for only an hour show, they played all their big hits. And that was just the warm-up act!

The All-Star Game itself was a blast. When you get 3-on-3 hockey, there’s not a lot of defense played. The goalies get hung out to dry. So there’s lot happening in 10-minute periods each time they go out.

One of the things I really appreciate about hockey is how much those involved appreciate the sport. There’s a saying I’ve heard, where cricket is a game for gentlemen played by gentlemen, soccer is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans, rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen, and Aussie Rules Football is a game for hooligans played by hooligans. When you look at hockey, you think it could be a hard-hitting, vicious game. But the respect these guys have for each other, for the game, and the history of the game is unbelievable to witness.

Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball
Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball

The NHL 100 celebration Friday night reminded me a lot of the Indianapolis 500 banquet. One of the first things they did was reveal the list of 100 greatest players, which included a number of players from the first 50 years of the game until 1960s… and right then, four living players walked out. Not even 10 seconds into it and the current players in the audience just applauded straightaway. That respect and the understanding for the game of hockey is really an indication of how remarkable the game and appreciation is.

You can draw so many parallels to IndyCar. The driver back then were right on the limit of everything their cars could do. It’s the same in the ice rink.

Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball
Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball

While there’s appreciation for the legends, there’s also good times and laughter we got to have with the mascots this trip. I believe 27 of the NHL mascots were in town. I got to know Bailey – the Kings mascot – when we were out in November. We’d shared some Twitter love. So I took a pic of the mascot showdown, and a number of bad puns were made. But all of them were in STAPLES Center, interacting with kids during TV timeouts. They were messing around with people and each other, which produced some classics! Nash – the Nashville Predator – came by. He came and took a photo with all the kids. They’d known each other and seen them at Predators games. It’s pretty cool the relationships that the mascots build with the fans.

The skills competition was the showcase event prior to the game on Saturday. It ended up a five-stage competition to pit the four divisions against each other. First off it was a relay, so there were thre wrist shots into an empty net, from the mid-line, the blue line, and close in. Then it moved into a passing competition, where one of the players had to pass a puck into a 4-inch by 2-inch goal! That was pretty serious. Then there was the puck handling… the skating competition. There’s six Gatorade bottles set out. They had to set this up and around. It went then to a tight-in, puck handling course, where you’d slide the puck through obstacles. There was a goalie shooting from his own goal over a barrier into the other goal at the end of ice. The winning time was crazy – a minute and 21 seconds. So all that happens in the time it takes me to do a lap of Watkins Glen!

Skills competition. Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball
Skills competition. Photo courtesy Charlie Kimball

There were also the target shooters. A guy stands on blue line… and they’ll feed them the puck and show how quickly they knock out the targets. Sidney Crosby’s targeting is spectacular. His ability to place the puck is super impressive. There was the fastest skating competition. I joked in one of my Instagram or Snapchat stories that it’s self explanatory. They can skate so fast with the stick in hands, and in full pads. Then it was the fastest shot. So it’s a slapshot from halfway between blue line and goal, as long as it went in. It tripped the radar gun at like 104 mph. Then they did a shootout between Pacific and Atlantic. Atlantic won and got to play the metro division … this was like knockout qualifying. And then the knockout round went up until the final round of All-Star Game.

At this point, I was merely catching my breath from how exhilarating this competition was. But me being a racer and having done the Rolex 24 at Daytona before, I had to check in on my teammates down in Daytona. Scott, Tony and Sebastien were racing in the Ganassi Ford GTs and Graham and Ryan were in the new Acuras. The challenge now was finding a way to be able to watch.

I’d mentioned earlier on Saturday how we’re at the concert and party. So I pulled out my phone to check in, and I pulled up the IMSA app and I saw how cold and wet everyone is. They’re cold and wet, and I was warm and dry!

I’ve driven at the Rolex 24 twice and done the “graveyard shift.” These stints are overnight; they can feel lonely and take forever, and it’s hard to stay focused at that point. Throw the challenge of rain in there and I was very impressed with the limited accidents in the rain.

Anyway, Saturday night, the only place that has FS2 TV coverage was the bar. So we sat at the bar from midnight to 12:30, so 3:30 a.m. ET, and it looked absolutely miserable. We ended up sitting next to a bunch of race fans. They were tangentially aware, and were seeing what our interest was in the race. We got up the next morning, and we had a decision to make: we could go to the NHL All-Star Brunch, or watch the last hour from the hotel and order room service.

Kimball able to watch at the bar... but not the final hour. Photos courtesy Charlie Kimball
Kimball able to watch the Rolex 24 at the bar… but not the final hour. Photos courtesy Charlie Kimball

In the last hour.. I couldn’t watch. I could not watch that GTLM battle. It was just craziness! But it was unbelievable, as the Ganassi Fords won in class. And it was nice to see the NSX run as well as it did in its debut. It wasn’t just the Ganassi boys, but it was the Honda brethren. Graham and Ryan ran up front. There’s some bugs to work out, but it’s their first year in an endurance car. It ran really well and they did a really nice job.

We made it back to STAPLES for the game. The final act was incredible; being at STAPLES – it’s all (Los Angeles) Kings and Pacific fans. So that last sequence when the puck nearly went in… we were all asking how it did not go in? That was a $90,000 miss right there. The prize money is $1 million awarded to the winning team, and split up among the 11 players. It was a thoroughly fun event and tense right down to the end.

I’ve had people ask whether some kind of all-star event might work for INDYCAR as well. It would be a great way to highlight the participants, especially those who have a great first half of the season. But the series is so good right now you’d need to have all the cars involved. Maybe you have different physical competitions, or highlight things we do week-in, week-out that you don’t see on the race broadcast. Say you look at Firestone guys breaking down or mounting tires. The question would be who would sponsor it and where would it be. But it could provide some cool highlights.

Event logo, Honda logo, Charlie and wife Kathleen. Photos courtesy Charlie Kimball
Event logo, Honda logo, Charlie and wife Kathleen. Photos courtesy Charlie Kimball

This was a super fun weekend, all around. It’s great to have the Honda family support because there’s so many things they are involved with beyond INDYCAR. There’s the NHL, redesigned Ridgeline, 2017 CRV and more. And you’ve seen what Bridgestone/Firestone have done with the Winter Classic.

It’s been nice for me to be back with Honda and it’ll be cool to do more fun things as the year goes on. As of next week though it’s back to the day job with our open test at Phoenix!

Thanks for reading.

-CK


Dancing With the Stars yet another life lesson learned for James Hinchcliffe

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Life is about lessons learned, and James Hinchcliffe has had more than his share of life lessons in the last year and a half.

Sure, many will immediately define his racing career by how he almost died in a crash, to triumphantly coming back a year later to earn the pole position for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, before ultimately finishing seventh.

But that’s merely part of an ongoing evolution of how the Canadian IndyCar driver continues to learn about himself as a person.

For example, when the suburban Toronto native was first approached earlier this year to appear in Season 23 of of the hit ABC TV show “Dancing With The Stars,” he was a bit apprehensive.

ABC's "Dancing With The Stars" Season 23 Finale - Arrivals
James Hinchcliffe and Dancing With the Stars partner Sharna Burgess. Photo: Getty Images

But the challenge of doing something he had never done – much like the comeback to racing that many thought he might never be able to do after his crash – proved to be a challenge Hinchcliffe couldn’t pass up.

It’s not surprising. That’s the kind of Type-A personality the self-described “Mayor of Hinchtown” has. He’s always ready and game for new experiences and new life lessons.

Sure, when he joined the DWTS cast, he learned about things like the foxtrot, waltz, rumba and tango.

But more importantly, he continued his ongoing process of learning even more about himself, and how if he could come back from near-tragedy, a mere dance contest would be a piece of cake.

And in a strange twist, Hinchcliffe’s journey to finish runner-up in DWTS actually began with his admission of how he cheated death when he survived a horrific wreck while practicing for the 2015 Indianapolis 500.

Going through a tremendous battle to recover helped the Canadian native not only become a better person, it also helped give him the fortitude to take a chance he might not otherwise take, such as being part of DWTS.

“It all came from a comment that Dr. (Tim) Pohlman (Hinchcliffe’s surgeon) made,” Hinchcliffe said. “He firmly believes there was a point where subconsciously I made a decision to fight for my life.

“In the immediate aftermath of that accident, the chance of survival was very low. A lot of people wouldn’t have made it through. He firmly believes that it was because of some sort of fight inside me that helped him do his job and ultimately get me through that.

“Sharna (Burgess, Hinchcliffe’s partner on DWTS) started asking me questions about that. I obviously have no memory of that. That’s not something that you do consciously. It’s a subconscious thing. So from somewhere in the time from when I lose my memory to when I wake up, that happened, that decision to fight happened.

“(Burgess) saw that was a very, you know, important moment. That’s what she wanted to create. For me there was kind of a gap in the story because I had not really thought about that, whether it was a subconscious or conscious decision. She so beautifully built that part of the story for me.

“Now I have a visual reference to what I think happened and how that went down inside me. It was a very cool process to be a part of.”

Hinchcliffe learned a lot about himself in his Dancing With the Stars foray, among the many life lessons he's experienced, particularly over the last 1 1/2 years.
Hinchcliffe learned a lot about himself in his Dancing With the Stars foray, among the many life lessons he’s experienced, particularly over the last 1 1/2 years.

Hinchcliffe ultimately finished runner-up in the overall DWTS competition to 16-year-old Olympic Gold medal-winning gymnast Laurie Hernandez.

But no matter how he finished, the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver said the experience was much about life as a whole.

While certainly not as serious as recovering from his crash injuries, to put himself in front of millions on TV – and particularly with no prior dancing experience – took a lot for Hinchcliffe to do. And in a unique fashion, it may ultimately make him a better driver, he said.

“I think just being able to overcome the kind of fear, being outside of your comfort zone in front of such a large audience in the room and on TV,” he said.

“It will help anytime I find myself in a situation where I am nervous or anxious about going into a race or making the move or whatever.

“Any kind of opportunity to flex your mental muscles in that sense and have that kind of experience will pay dividends in your own sport.”

While the process of taking a self-professed guy with two left feet and turning him into the Fred Astaire of IndyCar racing was a challenge, it also changed Hinchcliffe’s personality for the better.

“What it’s really done for me is reinforced a belief that I had beforehand, which was that you can do anything you put your mind to,” he said. “I came into this competition obviously with zero experience in the craft, a lot of apprehensions at doing it.

“Once I committed, I focused and put 100 percent of my effort towards it. … To finish runner-up to someone that is an Olympic gymnast I think is a pretty impressive feat for someone who sits for a living.”

In yet another analogy that parallels his recovery from the 2015 career-worst wreck and the resulting love and support from around the world he received, Hinchcliffe received considerable support during his DWTS quest from many of his racing peers, including 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and former DWTS winner Helio Castroneves.

“Honestly, the support from the motorsports world was incredible,” Hinchcliffe said. “Alex and Conor were at the first show. They made it to a couple throughout.

“Charlie Kimball was there (on) the last night. The amount of tweets of support from guys in the IndyCar paddock, guys in the NASCAR paddock, guys overseas, it was overwhelming. It was great to get that feedback and see that, A, they were watching, and B, they were supporting.”

And as for Castroneves, who won DWTS in 2007, Hinchcliffe expects some good-natured ribbing coming up.

“I’m never going to hear the end of this from him, I’m well aware of that,” Hinchcliffe quipped. “That’s fine. He did a tremendous job. He did what he had to do. He was able to walk off with the trophy.

“We were not quite able to do that, but I was at least up at the sharp end, so we can still be proud of the effort.”

Firestone 600 - Practice

A further illustration of how competing in DWTS mirrored other elements of his life, including his development as a racer, Hinchcliffe gained confidence with each passing week of the dancing competition – even though he still asked himself at times, “How did I get here?”

“The nerves never fully went away,” he said. “You certainly get more confident with the process, knowing what to expect in certain situations. That helps. Ultimately it was all still very new to me, even right through to the end.”

Not only did Hinchcliffe experience a whole new set of life lessons during the nearly three-month run of DWTS, he also experienced a transformation in himself.

“It was a lot of hard work, I won’t lie,” he said. “It was not something that came naturally. (Burgess will) be the first to tell you that every Tuesday morning when we’re starting from scratch, it was pretty rough.

“But by putting in the hours, not being afraid of a little hard work, some long sessions, late nights, repeatedly watching videos trying to improve, it’s amazing what can happen.”

Hinchcliffe came into DWTS thinking it’d probably be a one-and-done situation in more ways than one. He didn’t think he’d get past the first elimination, and yet he made it all the way to the finals before coming up just a bit short.

When the contest was finally over, again, many thought it would be a one-and-done deal for Hinchcliffe. But just like he surprised by taking on the DWTS challenge, he surprised just as much with his response on whether he would try to go through the whole process again in the future.

“It’s funny, when we were about halfway through the competition, I thought to myself, if for whatever reason I was asked to go again, I probably wouldn’t,” he said.

But …

“With what I’ve learned, how far I came as a dancer in that sense, then how close we came to the top spot, I think I probably could be talked into it again,” he said.

As Hinchcliffe puts the DWTS mirror ball in his rearview mirror, he goes forward having made a number of new friends from the show, including competitors who said they will visit him at upcoming races in 2017, including the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 in late May.

Now it’s back to his day job of being a race car driver, looking ahead to offseason testing and then the opening of the new season in March.

“Obviously I put 100 percent of my effort into my day job, into racing,” he said. “There’s no need to re-convince myself that working hard and giving 100 percent is the right way to go about that.

“But certainly not being afraid to kind of tackle new things even within the sport, whether it’s racing different cars in different series, trying to match a teammate in a certain corner with a certain setup. It’s really just about making sure that you give yourself enough credit for what you’re capable of doing.”

Will the whole DWTS experience ultimately make Hinchcliffe a better racer?

“There’s not a whole lot from a physical point of view that translates,” he said. “Maybe my feet will be a little more gentle on the throttle, but that’s about it.

“(But) there were a lot of parallels in the sense in how I wanted to make myself better as a dancer and how I would do the same thing on a race weekend as a driver.”

Yet if he drives victory lane at any of the upcoming 17 IndyCar races in 2017, particularly the Indianapolis 500, you can bet one thing.

He may be driving behind the wheel, but his feet will definitely be dancing in celebration, yet another life lesson learned.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar 2016 driver review: Charlie Kimball

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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the driver-by-driver recaps following the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, with a look at Charlie Kimball, who finished a career-best tied for ninth this year.

Charlie Kimball, No. 83 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2015: 12th Place, Best Finish 3rd, Best Start 6th, 2 Podiums, 3 Top-5, 5 Top-10, 21 Laps Led, 13.3 Avg. Start, 13.1 Avg. Finish
  • 2016: 9th Place, Best Finish 5th, Best Start 2nd, 2 Top-5, 11 Top-10, 5 Laps Led, 10.9 Avg. Start, 9.2 Avg. Finish

“Super Chuck” drove what I thought was his best season yet in six full-time campaigns. Where he drew the ire of the paddock was with how hard he raced, but that spoke to a driver growing in confidence and not afraid to mix it up because he was at a higher position in the field than where he used to be.

Consider that Kimball’s starting average this year ended at 10.9, which was the highest of his career, and by a significant margin (it had been 16.3 and 13.3 in 2014 and 2015). For a driver usually in the 12th-17th place range on the grid, now it was a case of qualifying 11th was a disappointment, when two or three years ago, that might have been considered a “good day.” This is, for example, why after qualifying a career-best second at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he was frustrated to finish “only” fifth.

Alas, instead of dicing with say, a James Jakes, an Ana Beatriz or a Sebastian Saavedra, Kimball’s races were now spent racing a Ryan Hunter-Reay, a Juan Pablo Montoya, a Graham Rahal or a Will Power more regularly. It takes time for a driver to integrate themselves into the lead group and from my perspective, I think the field was a bit rankled that the guy who they rarely used to think of as a legitimate threat had now become one.

Kimball was flat consistent, all year. He never got too high – for the first time since his rookie season of 2011 he didn’t grace a podium – but he was never too low, either. In 16 races, he finished between fifth and 12th 14 times, and had a total of 11 top-10 finishes. He finished better than where he started in 11 of 16 races, as well. The 31-year-old also led the field in laps completed, finishing a whopping 99.7 percent of the total laps at 2,066 of 2,070 – only a brake failure on the final lap at St. Petersburg prevented that number from being even higher.

Kimball is also underrated because he is such a nice guy off the track. It speaks to the dedication he has to his partner, Novo Nordisk, and the quality of the team assembled around him at Chip Ganassi Racing that he’s been there for 100 starts. Chip doesn’t keep guys he doesn’t think can produce, and even though there are commercial reasons why Kimball remains, the fact is he has improved year-by-year, every year, since arriving in 2011.

Another thing that really impressed me this year was how well Kimball and new engineer Eric Cowdin gelled. Cowdin had worked with Tony Kanaan for most of his career and with “TK” in the same team, you almost wondered if there would have been another reunion. Instead, Kimball and Cowdin clicked from the off, which was enough to dispel any concern that Kimball’s loss of ace engineer Brad Goldberg to Ganassi’s Ford GT sports car program would have an adverse effect on the program. Instead, Kimball took what he had learned the previous five years and applied it even more to drive his team forward.

It remains to be seen if Kimball will make that next leap from regular, consistent top-10 finisher to a bona fide multiple-race winner and championship contender. The field is still quite deep. But if he continues at that same rate of methodical progression, don’t be surprised to see him threaten the top-5 in points in the future.