IndyCar’s rookie battle features three drivers with chips on shoulders

Chilton, Rossi, Daly. All photos: IndyCar
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Conor Daly. Alexander Rossi. Max Chilton.

One tried hard for years but never made it to Formula 1. One finally broke down the door last year after endless, and often bizarre, missed opportunities. One made it in for a couple years, and was the model of consistency but never had a realistic chance of making it higher up the grid from the back of the field.

So the three who pushed for years primarily in Europe will be the rookie class of 2016… in the Verizon IndyCar Series?

Circumstances and fate have a funny way of making things happen and so with Rossi’s official confirmation in the Andretti-Herta Autosport fourth car, it’s two ex-Marussia F1 drivers and a Noblesville, Indiana kid who bleeds ‘Merica left and right who finally has a full-season crack at something after years driving anything and everything he could get his hands on.

The bottom line is that in IndyCar though, Daly, Rossi and Chilton have opportunities afforded to them they wouldn’t have had in F1.

In a single sentence, they all have a chance to star.

Chilton probably enters with a slightly better opportunity than the others, entering as fourth driver on the defending championship winning team of Chip Ganassi Racing. He drives the No. 8 Arthur J. Gallagher Co. Chevrolet.

He’s in a four-car environment that features two series and Indianapolis 500 champions plus a consistent third driver who’s won a race, has an underrated ace of an engineer in Brandon Fry, and has an under-the-radar motivating factor in wanting to exceed the performance level Sage Karam turned in last year.

He’s already coming off a high of his first major short oval test at Phoenix, where he came to grips pretty nicely.

“It’s exhilarating. There’s a lot more to it,” Chilton told NBC Sports at the test. “I’ve always known that since I came over here last year and appreciate ovals a lot more. Even after testing like that, I had probably 50-60 laps in the end in a pack or leading a pack.

“From experienced people, I hear you times that by 10 when you’re in the race. You’re in all in a chain and then you’re waiting for tires to go off. There’s still lots I’ve got to experience, but I think for my first short oval IndyCar experience, that was a pretty good job. My pace seemed pretty much as good as anyone on the racetrack, so I think it was a good start.”

He probably won’t say it publicly, but I’d have to think Chilton is motivated to stick it to the pro-Sage crowd. Even if commercial reasons necessitated the change, Chilton still can drive and he’s a clean set of hands, as he showed in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series last season. When he makes a rare mistake, as he did at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in the first race, he owns it.

The dry, understated wit that I hope Chilton will be able to deliver in interviews in 2016 serves as a perfect foil to the two American rookies he’ll try to defeat for Sunoco rookie-of-the-year honors. Rossi and Daly make no secret of their affinity for the Stars and Stripes; they were and to a point still are the best two hopes to make it as Americans in Europe in recent years.

Rossi enters Andretti Autosport in a slightly different situation, in the No. 98 Andretti-Herta with Curb Agajanian Honda. It’s still four cars, but with the late partnership announcement and a delayed testing schedule – Rossi will have had only two days of testing before St. Petersburg – it’s going to be an uphill struggle for him at least initially. The Herta/Andretti personnel mesh will need time to cook, although engineer Tom German should be an asset.

He’ll also need to reassess his opinion of ovals, having said a couple years ago he wasn’t particularly keen on driving them. Some rookies have an ability – and an affinity – to rock up on ovals and exceed expectations, as Mikhail Aleshin did in 2014. Others can struggle early and need more time to get comfortable. And Rossi knows he’ll have to learn, quickly.

“I don’t know where I’m gonna be when I first get on an oval,” Rossi told NBC Sports at Phoenix. “But with three great teammates, and Michael and Bryan as well, it’s a huge amount of help and will make me better.

“In streets and roads, I should adapt straight away. It’s just seeing where I’m at on ovals. I don’t know what the baseline is.”

The gauge for Rossi – as Karam is for Chilton – is Gabby Chaves. Chaves had three years in the Mazda Road to Indy prior to his promotion into IndyCar and Chaves, who is talented but sidelined following the Herta/Andretti partnership, was both Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar rookie-of-the-year last year.

Daly, in the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality & Restaurant Group/Cancer Treatment Centers of America Honda, is in the unique situation where he can prep and grow outside of the spotlight of one of the established “big three” teams.

That’s not at all a knock against Dale Coyne Racing – if anything, Coyne’s 30-plus year reputation for overachieving on a relative shoestring budget is legendary. Paired with Michael Cannon, Daly is probably going to surprise more often than not throughout 2016.

“It’s all new for both Luca and I here,” Daly said of his chance with teammate Luca Filippi, who isn’t a rookie but also heads into his first full season after three partial campaigns.

“I’m obviously really excited heading into the first race of the season. It’s a big weekend for me, for my family too and everyone that’s been a part of this ride ever since I was a kid, I’m just excited. That’s the word I can use best. Excited and ready to work.”

Daly has some experience of the 16 tracks, as does Chilton, while Rossi will be new to most facilities since it’s been a good eight years since he last raced in the U.S. full-time.

There’s also Spencer Pigot and Matthew Brabham, both of whom have partial season programs confirmed but are unlikely to compete for full rookie-of-the-year honors.

For realistic expectations, you could see two or three of these full-time drivers finishing in the 12th to 15th place range in the standings, likely with two of the three if not all three finding a podium at some point this year. Any Firestone Fast Six appearances would also stand out, given how Penske and Ganassi dominated most of 2015 were.

Wins and a top-10 finish in points, given the caliber of competition in the field, are less likely but still possible if any – or all – of the three overachieve compared to expectations. Rossi’s got bigger goals, though.

“I’m looking to win to be honest,” he said. “It’s similar between F1 and GP2. In GP2, I knew I had the potential to win, and with Andretti in IndyCar, I have potential to win here too.”

The best news for all three is they’ve got a shot, and it’s going to make for a very intriguing rookie battle this year.

Chase Sexton wins Triple Crown Anaheim 2 Supercross: Levi Kitchen unseats Jett Lawrence in 250s

Supercross Anaheim 2
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Chase Sexton won two of the three races in the Monster Energy Supercross Anaheim 2 Triple Crown, which was enough to overcome a fifth-place finish in Race 2 and give him the overall victory. It was the second Supercross win of his career.

“Super big night for me,” Sexton told NBC Sports’ Will Christien. “After last weekend with that being a struggle, I just need to come out here and stop the bleeding a little bit and I did that tonight.”

Sexton suffered a crash on Lap 1 of his heat, sending him into Last Chance Qualifier. The bad gate pick put him in a difficult position to start the race and he was able to climb to only fifth at the checkers.

At Anaheim 2, three riders entered the final race of the Triple Crown in a winner-take-all scenario. Sexton, Jason Anderson and Eli Tomac each had a shot at victory. It raised the intensity level for all riders in an evening that featured a lot of comers and goers.

Jason Anderson took the early lead in Race 3, which set him up for the overall victory. Sexton stalked and passed him midway through the race and then a minor mistake late allowed Webb to slip around as well. Anderson’s 5-1-3 gave him second overall.

“I had a tough couple of rounds, getting off that Anaheim 1 crash and then last week weekend I fumbled a little bit, but I’m excited to get back on the box and start moving forward,” Anderson told Jason Thomas.

Anderson finished seventh in the first two rounds of 2023.

RESULTS: How they finished for the 450 Main in Anaheim 2

Ken Roczen was the model of consistency in the opening rounds and at Anaheim 2. In three races so far this year, he’s gotten progressively better each time with a fifth in A1, a fourth last week in San Deigo and a third this week.

With results of 2-3-4, he earned his first podium of the season, which lands him fourth in the standings.

“This was hard earned,” Roczen said after the race. “I completely botched the start and then to have to work my way up. I only happen on the very last lap to step up here on the podium.”

Webb’s solid second-place finish in the third race allowed him to leapfrog several riders and finish fourth overall, but a seventh in Race 1 kept him off the podium. He improved in each race in Anaheim, however, with a 7-4-2.

With a 4-6-5, Dylan Ferrandis rounded out the top five.

The intensity of the race was a little too much for Tomac.

While battling side-by-side with Webb in Race 3 at the one-third mark, Tomac jumped wide and crashed hard. He fell to 14th, doing some damage to his bike in the process. He advanced only one position in that race to 13th. His first two races, a third and second, were strong enough to give him sixth overall. He retains the points lead, but it has shrunk to a gap of only four over Sexton and Webb.

Malcolm Stewart injured late in the week and was not able to mount.

Levi Kitchen became the first rider to unseat Jett Lawrence in the Triple Crown format at Anaheim 2 and won the overall with consistency. In his three races, Kitchen finished 4-2-2 to narrowly edge the winner of the first two races.

“This whole day; this is unbelievable. I took a few good slams in practice and I was down on myself,” Kitchen told NBC Sports Jason Thomas afterward. “The first moto I got a good start and got shuffled back, then I knew I just needed to be consistent.”

Jett Lawrence saved his best for last – which wasn’t hard given the struggles he experienced in the first two races.

Despite those problems, he entered Race 3 of the Triple Crown three points behind Kitchen after suffering a pair of disappointing races by his personal measuring stick. In the first and second 250 races of the night, Lawrence hit the ground. He dropped to the final rider in the running order in Race 2 with a Lap 1 fall. But in both races, he was able to overcome his mistake and close the gap so that he had a chance to take his first Triple Crown win of his career.

Click here for full 250 West Main Results

Lawrence rode to third in Race 1 and sixth in Race 2. In the final race of the night, Lawrence did all he could. He earned the holeshot, but when Kitchen fell in behind him, Lawrence’s fate was sealed. His 3-6-1 tied him in points with Stilez Robertson, but the tiebreaker goes to the final round and his win secured second-place.

“I can definitely say Triple Crowns are not my thing,” Lawrence told NBC Sports Will Christien. “We have one more to try and fix this, so hopefully we can get that done.”

Lawrence will move into the 450 class for the Lucas Oil Motocross outdoor season and his 250 record book will be closed.

The best news for Lawrence is the other riders who entered this round in the top three had a worse night, so Lawrence leaves Anaheim with a 16-point gap on Cameron McAdoo and 17 over RJ Hampshire.

Roberston finished 6-1-3 to take the final step of the podium.

“Getting that win in the second Main meant a lot,” Roberston told Thomas. “I wish I could have done a little better in the third one, but we’re still up here on the box.”

Mitchell Oldenburg used consistency to earn fourth in the overall. He finished 5-4-6.

After missing the Main last week in San Diego, Max Vohland finished 7-8-4 to round out the top five.

RJ Hampshire set himself up as the early favorite with his Race 1 win. In Race 2, it all fell apart. He fell in the sand section and damaged his bike, finishing last in that race. The final event of the night for the 250s provided only a 13th-place finish, leaving Hampshire deep in the points.

Cameron McAdoo hard crash in qualification, which was scary news for a team that has seen three of their riders sidelined with injury. McAdoo was never quite able to get his rhythm with an 8-7-5.

2023 Race Recaps

San Diego: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence double down
Anaheim 1: Tomac wins opener for the first time

Anaheim 2 coverage

Power Rankings Week 2
SuperMotocross tightens playoff schedule
Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence go two-for-two in San Diego
Results and points after San Diego
Seth Hammaker to miss 250 E season opener with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner with injury
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX