Indy 500 Insights: Townsend Bell analyzes his week of practice, qualifying before Carb Day

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Every year, Townsend Bell puts together a one-off Indianapolis 500 program. The 2014 edition will be Bell’s eighth ‘500 appearance, after making his debut in 2006 and running every year consecutively since 2008. This year, he returns to KV Racing Technology, the team where he posted his career-best ‘500 finish of fourth in 2009, and where he seeks to improve upon it this year. The NBC Sports Group Verizon IndyCar Series analyst is able to provide both a driver’s an analyst’s perspective in the field. For part four of this daily series through this week (see parts three, two, one here), Townsend discusses the week that was in terms of practice and qualifying.

After nearly a year out of an IndyCar – since his last Indianapolis 500 appearance here last year – the days of May 11-19 saw Townsend Bell get back to up to speed to prepare for his eighth ‘500 start.

The elements and ingredients are there for success. Bell joins a stacked four-car KV Racing Technology lineup, the defending race-winning team, with teammates Sebastien Bourdais, Sebastian Saavedra and rookie James Davison.

Factor in a crew that includes former Wayne Taylor Racing team manager Simon Hodgson, ace engineer Gerald Tyler and crew chief Didier Francesia, among others, and Bell has as good a shot as any of the one-off ‘500 entries.

Admittedly, practice has been a challenge. Bell ran a total of 374 laps over the week but missed running on both Wednesday, May 14, due to the rain and on Fast Friday, May 16. While the balance has been good, and the car strong in race traffic, it hasn’t quite had the outright, top-end performance to mix it up in the top nine.

And it showed. Although Bell was good in race trim – crucially – he won’t be starting from that great a position, with 25thh the spot where he’ll roll off in the No. 6 Robert Graham-Royal Purple-Beneteau USA Chevrolet for KVRT.

“We just were slow, but with a great balance,” Bell told MotorSportsTalk in an interview earlier this week. “We were totally consistent, but just slow. I’m not sure why. It was weird.”

The plight shared by the KVRT team mirrored that of fellow Chevrolet-powered Chip Ganassi Racing, which you’d expect to be frontrunners but, no matter how small the margin, is just that fractional bit off this month.

“Let’s say I’m just 1.5 mph off of the Fast Nine,” Bell said. “It’s not that much, really. But you’d never see the gap from first to last be that short in the past.”

“We had Bourdais almost at 230, I was low 229, Saavedra was 228,” he added. “Ganassi was similar. Almost 231 for (Scott) Dixon, 230 TK (Tony Kanaan), 229 (Charlie) Kimball, and 228 (Ryan) Briscoe. Others matched up better in consistency over the course of the run; we didn’t.”

If there is a silver lining for Bell, it’s that he came from a similar back-third starting position to his career-best finish in the ‘500, from 24th to fourth driving for KV in 2009.

His other starts? He was 15th as a rookie in 2006, 12th in 2008, then 24th, 10th, fourth, 20th and 22nd. He has three top-10 finishes (fourth in 2009, ninth in 2012 and 10th in 2008).

“I’ve done it before to come from the back, but man, it’s not exactly easy to lay it down and make up 23 positions. But we’ll put our heads down,” Bell said.

Today, Bell pulls double duty between the cockpit for final practice and the NBCSN broadcast booth, covering today’s Pit Stop Competition and Carb Day action (11 a.m. ET, NBCSN).

“The ‘Carb Day’ name is a misnomer because it used to be carburetors way back … but now it’s our final one-hour practice,” Bell said. “It’s gonna be fast and furious as everyone tries to refine. This one hour is really important for you to show how you do in traffic. With the freight train of 20 cars, there’s a vicious turbulent air.

“It’s a critical session with pit stop practice and plugging in. I’m looking forward to doing the practice then head to the booth to cover the pit stop competition.”

Helio Castroneves: ‘I have nothing to lose’ Sunday in bid for 4th Indy 500 win

All photos: IndyCar
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You might say Helio Castroneves comes into Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 with a “less is more” philosophy than he’s had in years past:

* No pressure

* No worrying about points

* No worrying about winning a championship

Take away all those things and the very popular Brazilian driver could be in the best position he’s ever been to achieve the biggest goal of his career:

Winning a fourth Indy 500, making him a member of motor racing’s most exclusive club, joining legendary drivers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to conquer the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway four times each.

Like his car number, Castroneves has won the Indy 500 three times. He wants to change that number to four times in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Photo: IndyCar.

“For sure, I definitely don’t have much to lose in terms of points, championships, and things like that,” Castroneves told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week. “I don’t have to think that I don’t have a car to win, I’m not going to risk that much because there are still championship points (to earn if he was still racing full-time in the series).

“Not that I did that before, but if the situation occurs, people just need to know I have nothing to lose this time.”

Castroneves three prior triumphs in the 500 came in his first two years in the field – 2001 and 2002 – and again in 2009. In addition, he has finished twice in the last four editions of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing in 2014 and 2017.

Coming so close last year, losing to Takuma Sato by .201 of a second, is something Castroneves hasn’t forgotten about. To come so close to No. 4 has only made him more hungry to get it done on Sunday.

“Yeah, but if it were easy, we would likely have had more than four wins by now,” he said. “We’ve had opportunities in the past, the last four years we were really competitive, we were right there, especially in ’14 and ’17, we were right on it.

“Last year, I thought it was going to be the hardest 500 for me and look what happened: we were battling to the end for a victory,” Castroneves said. “It’s not just about trying hard, it’s about being there at the right place at the right time.

“And this place, Indianapolis, I’ve always said the track winds up choosing who is going to be the winner. Hopefully, with safety and luck, we’ll be part of it and be on the right side.”

Team owner Roger Penske decided after last season to put Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya as the chief drivers of Team Penske’s new two-car effort in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship sports car series.

When the announcement was first made, many feared that Castroneves had run out of chances to get that elusive No. 4 at Indy.

But Penske sweetened the deal for Helio to go sports car racing by promising he’d field a car for him at Indy. And Penske has proven to be a man of his word, giving Castroneves everything he needs to finally win No. 4.

“I feel we’ve prepared as much as a team, we’re doing everything possible in relation to preparation,” Castroneves said. “The preparation we had in the previous year helps us tremendously to give us an opportunity fighting there for a win, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Castroneves has taken to the new style Indy car with aplomb. During the first week of practice leading up to last weekend’s qualifying, he was consistently one of the fastest drivers in the field.

The 43-year-old even topped the speed charts in the Fast Nine last Saturday before ending up eighth in the following day’s pole qualifying.

As a result, he’ll start Sunday’s race from the middle of Row 3, anchoring Team Penske’s four-man Top 8 starting lineup effort in the 500. When the green flag drops, to his left will be Danica Patrick and to his right will be four-time IndyCar champ and former 500 winner Scott Dixon.

And millions of others right behind him, so to speak.

“I feel the sense that everyone wants it to happen,” he said of winning No. 4. “We’re talking about being part of history here. The last guy to do it was Rick Mears in the ‘90s (1991).

“I mean, how cool would that be if I would be in the position and to see No. 4 in my era. I hear a lot of the fans, even those supporting different drivers, all saying ‘Man, I want to see you win No. 4.’ That just shows how special this place is.

“(The Indy 500) is part of a lot of people’s lives. I just would be very fortunate to hopefully to have this generation see someone do No. 4.”

While he’d rather not think about missing out on a fourth win at Indy for a ninth straight year, Castroneves is using reverse psychology somewhat.

He’s going into Sunday’s biggest race in the world fully believing he will finally win No. 4.

And if he does, forget the idea that he would never come back to race at Indy again.

“Not at all. Why? You’re so close to getting four, and then when you get four, you stop it? It doesn’t make sense.

“I think I still have at least four or five more years, there’s no question about it. As long as Roger (Penske) gives me the opportunity, I’m going to be going for it, for sure.”

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