Win validation for Kimball and Novo Nordisk Ganassi crew (VIDEO)

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Occasionally derided or just known as “that driver with diabetes,” it’s been a long road for Charlie Kimball to get to victory lane in the IZOD IndyCar Series, as he finally did Sunday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The third-year driver from Camarillo, Calif. was the less heralded member of IndyCar’s trio of young North American rookie class in 2011. JR Hildebrand had the championship pedigree from Firestone Indy Lights and the deferral to MIT, while James Hinchcliffe was the self-made brand as the “Mayor of Hinchtown.” Kimball was there, deservedly so, but didn’t earn near the hype or accolades as his fellow Californian or that quirky Canadian.

At the time, honestly, he’d probably tell you he didn’t deserve any. Hildebrand was famously one corner away from a win in his first Indianapolis 500 start while Hinchcliffe took to IndyCar like a duck to water and earned Rookie-of-the-Year honors. Kimball, meanwhile, struggled with only five starts better than 16th and just two top-10 finishes; he finished 19th in points.

But come year two, Kimball was closer to the finished product and adapted quite well to the new Dallara DW12 chassis. As he and engineer Brad Goldberg found their comfort zone, they started qualifying better – he improved his qualifying position at every track except Barber – and had at least moved into the upper midfield with six top-10 finishes. Toronto, his first podium, proved the highlight with an unforgettable pass of Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud at Turn 3, en route to second.

In year three, Kimball is nearly the finished article. The qualifying’s gotten better still, his road course prowess has increased, and the addition of new team manager Tom Wurtz just prior to Detroit has provided another level of leadership and experience with which to draw on.

Add in the one-year drop of a fourth car and the cohesive work between the Novo Nordisk and Target crews, and you see why Kimball is now tied for seventh in points in one of the deeper IndyCar fields in the last 20 years.

To hear him tell it, as he did after his win on Sunday at Mid-Ohio, it’s not as much about him as it is the effort of his team. It has been a methodical, step-by-step developmental process not unlike a baseball player who comes in raw as a rookie and improves with seasoning.

“It’s special for me, but it’s more importantly special for everyone that’s helped me get here,” said Kimball. “Chip taking the risk on me three years ago as a young rookie; Novo Nordisk, their commitment to my program and the commitment to motorsports to reach their audience over the last five years is fantastic.”

“It’s so fulfilling for me and for a lot of people,” he added. “I think that when you’re in the meetings with Chip and your first year, he’s telling you to go out and just finish the races and learn as much as possible. And you get a lot of flak for not getting the results that you might expect or want to, but you’re following the boss’s orders.

“Now to be able to repay that in my third year; I said at the beginning of the year that the last couple of years, we got the experience, we built the foundation, and as a team, we are ready to win, now we just need to do it. So to be able to get that win today and this weekend was definite validation for Chip, for the Novo Nordisk Group, my engineer, Brad, and all of the crew.”

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500