Chevrolet VP has open mind about possible Dale Earmhardt Jr. – Graham Rahal car swap

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The ball – or in this case, the steering wheel – is in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s court now.

If Junior truly wants to swap rides in an exhibition with fellow National Guard-sponsored Graham Rahal and his IndyCar open-wheeler, he’ll have to ask first.

That’s what Jim Campbell, Chevrolet VP/Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, told The Associated Press.

Campbell said the manufacturer would keep an open mind if Earnhardt officially stepped forward to swap rides with Rahal.

“If we get a proposal, we’ll take a look at it and we’ll look at it with an open set of eyes. The rest is hypothetical,” Campbell told AP. “Broadly speaking about any Chevy driver that is currently on our roster, if they decided to go race in another category or series, of course we’d love to see them in Chevys. There’s no doubt about that.

“In some cases it works out like that, and in some cases it doesn’t.”

Earnhardt said last week that he didn’t think the swap would happen because he drives for Chevy while Rahal drives a Honda-powered IndyCar, which is Chevy’s chief rival in the open-wheel series.

“I think the fact (Rahal) has a relationship with a different manufacturer is going to make it challenging – if not impossible – for me to drive that particular car,” Earnhardt said.

Thus far, there has been no official response from Honda officials whether the manufacturer would allow such a swap. But Rahal, who originally proposed the idea with a tweet to Earnhardt at last week’s Sprint Cup race at Fontana, Calif., remains hopeful that the exhibition trade can occur.

The two drivers would likely drive each other’s cars for a few laps at a site to be determined.

Fan interest, especially on Twitter, has been highly in favor of the proposed deal. National Guard officials said the idea has their support, as well.

Earnhardt may have been a bit premature in pooh-poohing the idea. Fellow Chevrolet-powered Sprint Cup driver Kurt Busch will drive a Honda in this year’s Indianapolis 500, and then fly to Charlotte to race his Chevy later that evening in NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600.

Busch had originally tested an Indy car with Andretti Autosport last year, when the team was powered by Chevrolet. However, it is powered by Honda this season.

Still, while Chevy officials originally encouraged Busch to drive for Chevrolet-powered IndyCar teams such as those owned by Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske, he ultimately chose to stay with the Andretti camp, and Chevy acquiesced the one-off Indy 500 run with Busch in a Honda.

“We had a great two-year run with Andretti Autosport and when he did his original test, Andretti was with Chevy,” Campbell said. “The conversation started when it was a Chevy team, and it just kept going. We’d certainly have liked to see Kurt in a Chevy for the 500, it just didn’t work out.”

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IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.