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The experience, not the result, defines Alonso’s Indy 500 odyssey

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INDIANAPOLIS – It almost had to end the way it did on Sunday.

There was Fernando Alonso, doing what he’d set out to do in this six-week odyssey since stunning the motorsports world on April 12 with the announcement he’d be in a McLaren Honda of an IndyCar kind at the Indianapolis 500, with Andretti Autosport, reminding everyone he’s still one of the best drivers in the world after a month where he never looked a rookie in his first oval race, his first IndyCar race.

And yet there was the plume of smoke, just short of the finish, billowing out the rear of the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry that ended his day before he got the result.

The combination of mid-2010s Alonso, McLaren and Honda joined with the legacy of the words “Andretti is slowing” at Indianapolis to produce Alonso, in a McLaren, Honda, Andretti entry slowing and stopping just shy of that ever elusive checkered flag.

It mattered not. Alonso still lived up to all the hype placed on him this month, if not exceeded it.

From the moment Alonso made his first visit to Birmingham, Ala. of all places – as far away by mileage and culture from the Bahrain Grand Prix he had failed to finish a week earlier – Alonso was the focus of attention, even as his primary goal was to integrate into the team and begin the learning process.

The simulator work followed in Indianapolis shortly thereafter, following his seat fit and meeting the crew who’d be on his No. 29 car, in the right shade of papaya orange, not the F1 version that slightly missed the mark.

He met the Borg-Warner Trophy, a trophy he was keen to see his face placed on.

And then, he hit the Speedway for the first time on May 3, in a made-for-digital event that was the test heard ’round the Internet. Going 222-plus mph for an average on his first day in the car, as he joked at the time his right foot and brain weren’t in sync, still showcased his innate talent.

Alonso never looked uncomfortable, out of place or – importantly – annoyed with the process that came with coming to Indianapolis.

At every opportunity, he embraced the challenge, the fans and the odyssey that came with it.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, races during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

If there were autographs to be signed – and judging by the throngs of fans surrounding his garage area or his daily walk to Gasoline Alley – he’d do as best he could to get them all before being whisked away to whatever came next. Or, alternatively, he got on his skateboard and rolled off.

If there were media obligations to be had – and as some drivers casually threw some snark, as Conor Daly and Graham Rahal joked “Alonso was about the only driver in the race” – Alonso fulfilled them. A bevy of reporters were consistently around his No. 29 pit stall all month. More still sat and waited in the media center for his press conferences, and where Alonso starred there was that he never appeared he was mailing it in. The banter between he and Alexander Rossi – when Rossi noted Alonso needed to be awake at 6 a.m. – was perhaps the funniest moment of the month.

He sat for an hour on media day with hundreds gathered around his space as poor Sebastian Saavedra sitting next to him had but one reporter – me – asking him questions ahead of another debut, Saavedra’s Juncos Racing team.

And most importantly, if there was a desire to be the best on track he could be, he fulfilled it.

Alonso learned the elements of single-car runs in practice, race running in practice, drafting with his Andretti Autosport teammates in the “mini packs,” the pressure that comes with four-lap qualifying runs and averaging more than 230 mph, the drama that comes with engine changes in IndyCar, and then the ability to push as hard as possible against other drivers on track.

He made some daring and some would probably say questionable chops and passing maneuvers throughout the month, but wasn’t that part of the plan to begin with? Seeing Alonso back in a car that could win and knowing he had the ability to pull it off made the whole experience worth it.

He made it to the lead by Lap 37 of Sunday’s race, for the first of 27 laps led, third most among the 15 drivers who did. After starting fifth and taking it easy on the start to drop to ninth, Alonso was a top-five regular the rest of the race (more than 100 laps to be more precise), before he was running in seventh on Lap 179 and there, the smoke erupted. He was classified 24th.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, races during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

He exited the car to cheers from the Indianapolis faithful, who are not easy to please at your first attempt. But the cheers that echoed around these hallowed grounds welcomed a driver who’d starred himself, for McLaren, and for the Indianapolis 500 – even if the result was a similar one he’s been used to this year.

“Anyway, (it) was a great experience, the last two weeks. I came here basically to prove myself, to challenge myself. I know that I can be as quick as anyone in an F1 car. I didn’t know if I can be as quick as anyone in an IndyCar,” Alonso reflected Sunday.

“It was nice to have this competitive feeling, even leading the Indy 500, you know. One lap you put on the lead there, it was already a nice feeling. I was passing, watching the tower, saw the 29 on top of it. I was thinking at that moment if Zak or someone from the team was taking a picture, because I want that picture at home.

“Thanks to IndyCar, amazing experience. Thanks to Indianapolis. Thanks to the fans. I felt at home. I’m not American, but I felt really proud to race here.”

Zak Brown, executive director of McLaren Technology Group and the man who was integral in bringing Alonso and McLaren to Indianapolis, could only echo those thoughts.

“If we put aside the last 20 laps, which is a massive disappointment, if we reflect back on the past month, it was outstanding. Fernando didn’t put a wheel wrong. He showed what a world class world champion he is today.

“When Fernando and I first spoke about the Indianapolis 500, I wasn’t sure what Fernando’s response would be because I think not many race car drivers in this world are brave enough to do what Fernando just did. Not just from a physical standpoint, but the whole world was watching Fernando race today. He put himself out there and exposed himself, delivered the goods, which isn’t a surprise to anyone that has watched Fernando race.”

Alonso has left the door open to a return, although that will likely depend on how his F1 future sorts itself out – he’s a free agent at year’s end. But he figures he’ll be better in a second go-’round.

“Obviously if I come back here, at least I know how it is (with) everything,” he said. “It will not be the first time I do restarts, pit stops, all these kind of things. So will be an easier, let’s say, adaptation. Let’s see what happen in the following years.

“Yeah, I need to keep pursuing this challenge because winning the Indy 500 is not completed. It holds a new challenge if I can find a car that slow me down somehow.”

Lastly, Alonso did have some milk – albeit in a slightly different type of container than the one teammate Takuma Sato had as he won the race.

“Thank you for all media. I didn’t won, but I will drink a little bit of milk,” he laughed, as he drank out of a tiny milk carton usually served in schools or lunch boxes.

“You followed me for two weeks every single minute, but I really enjoyed it. Thanks for the welcoming. See you in Austin.”

And with that, the odyssey of Alonso at Indianapolis has completed its first chapter.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, walks away from his car after his engine expired during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

First Honda engine issue strikes Hunter-Reay on Lap 137

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INDIANAPOLIS – Reliability was expected to be a major story line in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil but it has taken until Lap 137 before the first Honda engine issue has hit, which came from pre-race concerns in that camp.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who led seven times for 28 laps in the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport, had his engine drop out on the backstraight as he went onto the apron into Turn 3.

It is the second straight year the 2014 winner has been sidelined short of a possible second win.

Hunter-Reay has diced with teammates Fernando Alonso and Alexander Rossi this race. At the time of his motor dropping out, he was running second to Alonso.

There were eight Honda engine failures this month prior to today, between the INDYCAR Grand Prix race, and Indianapolis 500 practice and qualifying.

Button gets 15-place grid penalty in Monaco after power unit issue

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Jenson Button looks set to start his one-off Formula 1 appearance in 2017 from the back of the grid after being handed a 15-place penalty for Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix.

Button stepped away from racing full-time in F1 at the end of last year, only to be drafted back in by McLaren for Monaco following Fernando Alonso’s decision to race in the Indianapolis 500.

Button has impressed throughout practice, ending FP3 12th-fastest despite not having driven the McLaren-Honda MCL32 before Thursday.

However, the 2009 world champion’s weekend has now taken a hit after it was confirmed on Saturday morning that he would serve a 15-place grid drop for changes to his power unit after practice.

“We have changed Jenson’s MGU-H/TC after detecting an issue with his MGU-H after FP2,” Honda said.

“The MGU-H/TC will be Jenson’s fifth, which means he will receive 15 place grid penalty for the race.”

Button’s teammate for the weekend, Stoffel Vandoorne, is also due to take a grid drop of three places as a sanction for his clash with Felipe Massa in the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago.

Qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

Townsend Bell, Ray Evernham, Marty Snider make their Indy 500 picks (VIDEO)

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On Friday’s NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special on NBCSN, Townsend Bell and Ray Evernham made their picks for Sunday’s 101st running of the Indianapolis 500.

NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Bell is picking Ryan Hunter-Reay, while Evernham is going with the newest member to Team Penske, namely, Josef Newgarden.

But NBCSN IndyCar and NASCAR reporter Marty Snider disagrees: he’s picking polesitter Scott Dixon.

Interestingly, none of them picked the driver fans around the world be watching on Sunday: two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso, who starts from the middle of Row 2.

Check out the video above.

Red Bull GRC: Sebastian Eriksson, Honda break through in Louisville

Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull Content Pool
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Sebastian Eriksson and Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE are on the board in Red Bull Global Rallycross, following a thrilling battle in today’s second round of the season from Louisville’s Kentucky Exposition Center.

In a photo finish as he edged Loenbro Motorsports’ Steve Arpin by just 0.071 of a second, Eriksson scored his and the Honda Civic Coupe’s first series victories.

WATCH: Full Louisville event replay on NBC

Meanwhile, Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross driver Scott Speed, an NBCSports.com blogger in 2017, finished third.

The series’ full recap is below:

Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull Content Pool

Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE driver Sebastian Eriksson nipped Loenbro Motorsports’ Steve Arpin by .071 seconds to win Sunday’s Red Bull Global Rallycross Louisville final at the Kentucky Exposition Center. It was Eriksson’s second career victory and the first for Honda since joining the sport at the beginning of last season.

“It was a great race for us,” said Eriksson. “I was up in the lead for a few laps, but then I fell back to fourth, so it was crazy. But it was so much fun! The team has worked so hard for this over the past year and a half, and finally we’ve been able to win a race. It feels great, but we can’t stop working hard and trying to secure more victories this year.”

Though much of the day saw action take place in dry conditions, the wet weather came just in time for the 10-lap Supercar final. Four drivers—Eriksson, Arpin, and Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammates Scott Speed and Tanner Foust—spent much of the final running nose to tail, with the Joker Lap and a slippery dirt surface shuffling the order throughout. Arpin nearly got past Eriksson in the final corner, setting up a drag race to the finish, but wasn’t quite able to make the pass. All told, the top four drivers finished within one second of each other.

In GRC Lites, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing driver Christian Brooks scored his first career main event win, sweeping all of his race sessions on Sunday. Brooks led Olsbergs MSE X Forces driver Cyril Raymond for much of the final, until Raymond clipped a curb and rolled over; he was unhurt in the incident. Memphis winner Conner Martell took second, while Gustavo Yacaman earned third place in his rallycross debut.

Official Supercar final results from Red Bull Global Rallycross Louisville are as follows:

  1. Sebastian Eriksson, #93 Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE
  2. Steve Arpin, #00 Loenbro Motorsports
  3. Scott Speed, #41 Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross
  4. Tanner Foust, #34 Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross
  5. Mitchell deJong, #24 Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE
  6. Austin Dyne, #14 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing*
  7. Oliver Eriksson, #16 Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE
  8. Cabot Bigham, #2 Bryan Herta Rallysport

*Car 14 reinstated to sixth place after technical issue with transponder

The 2017 Red Bull Global Rallycross season continues on June 3-4 with the first doubleheader of the season at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park. Tickets are available at redbullglobalrallycross.com/tickets. The Supercar finals can be seen on NBC on Saturday, June 3 and Sunday, June 4, both airing at 5PM ET.