Kimball seizes his opportunity, ends third in Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Long-regarded by many as “the other guy” at Chip Ganassi Racing, when the team had any or all of Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Graham Rahal and now Tony Kanaan in its lineup, Charlie Kimball hasn’t had too many races where he’s really emerged as “the guy.”

He’s had drives of note before – Barber, Mid-Ohio and Fontana 2013, Detroit race two and both Houston races last year – and he’s also been in the lower tier of the top-10 on two prior occasions in the Indianapolis 500 (eighth in 2012, ninth in 2013).

Today, however, was arguably one of Kimball’s best drives of his Verizon IndyCar Series career, and easily his best in the Indianapolis 500.

Kimball ended third behind Team Penske teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power.

Kimball started 14th in the newly reliveried blue and green No. 83 Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, but quietly was up to sixth place by Lap 50.

That was noteworthy, as he passed fellow “class of 2011” Indianapolis 500 rookie JR Hildebrand a few laps previous to really begin to enter the fray behind the top five of Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Will Power.

Kimball hung tough throughout the day once he got into that position, although he admitted the middle of his race was tough, and stayed close enough to where he would have a chance to emerge even higher as the race progressed.

“The first couple stints, I couldn’t do anything wrong,” Kimball said. “Could have put that thing down through the grass and she’d have stuck.

“In the middle stint, felt like I couldn’t do anything right. I kept telling my guys, kept talking to Brad (Goldberg, engineer), tell him what the car was doing, asking for what I needed to be there at the end. He kept giving it to me. The last two stints we kept making progress.”

Arguably Kimball’s most important moment of the race came during the second-to-last pit stop cycle, when he entered the pits later than the aforementioned top-five, and then could get out ahead of them once Kanaan crashed and brought out the fourth full course caution.

That meant by Lap 155, Kimball had the lead ahead of Pagenaud, Dixon, Montoya and Power.

Kimball fell to sixth by Lap 170 and he was two spots further back after Andretti Autosport drivers Carlos Munoz and Justin Wilson gambled on fuel, hoping for another yellow to gain track position and end higher, but recovered in the final 15-lap dash to the finish.

Kimball settled in nicely behind the top three and once Dixon lost the momentum in the waning moments, Kimball was able to get back by and end a career-best third in the race.

“I saw Scott racing pretty hard with the Penske boys,” Kimball explained. “I thought that I could be in the catbird seat here if they go three-wide into one and I go in the warmup lane and come out the other side.

“Having said that, it was great racing. Scott had to lift for traffic, I wasn’t going to lift. I didn’t have anything for the Penske boys the last couple laps. A lot of credit to them. They ran strong all day.”

The result is Kimball’s second straight top-five at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, having finished fifth in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis earlier this month.

He also leapt up to eighth in the points standings, having entered 14th. He heads into Detroit with the confidence and results boost, also knowing he had a podium finish there last year.

Kimball praised the racing all-around, considering he had a front row seat to most of the action up front.

“The guys were really clean today,” he said. “There was a lot of intelligent, respectful racing. Doesn’t mean it was not hard-fought right on the edge, but everybody understood what the situation was and was racing each other very cleanly.

“It’s the Indianapolis 500. You get to the front, you give it everything you’ve got. Every opportunity you have, you make the most of it.”

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”