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.”