Charlie Kimball set for West Coast swing, first Phoenix race since ’03

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There’s only a handful of drivers competing in this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix who have past experience at Phoenix International Raceway and two of them – Charlie Kimball and Ryan Hunter-Reay – have previously raced on PIR’s now inactive infield road course.

For Kimball, whose team premiered the new Tresiba livery aboard his No. 83 Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet on Monday, the chance to return to a pseudo-home race in Arizona is a welcome one.

“Yeah it was a lot of fun racing out there. It was 2003 in the spring… and I was still in high school!” Kimball told NBC Sports. “It was good. I was with PR1 Motorsports, led by Bobby Oergel. We won both races and I have some fond memories for sure.

“We just really enjoy being out in the Southwest; it’s a great part of the country. My crew chief Ricky Davis grew up three to four miles away from Phoenix, and he might have a bigger cheering section than I do!”

Kimball, of Camarillo, Calif., his family that lives outside Phoenix in Buckeye. He expects in-laws and other family to attend the race. And then with Long Beach coming up on April 17, he’s got two West Coast races back-to-back.

His memories of Phoenix stretch longer than just that brief weekend at PIR 13 years ago.

“I remember driving out to Phoenix for a go-kart race. It’s up on the north side of town, near Deer Valley. We took the 101 to avoid going through downtown Phoenix. And back then, about 12 to 15 years ago, that was in the middle of nowhere!

“Now, with the stadiums and Camelback Ranch, with the baseball spring training, it’s fully built up. The 101 isn’t the edge of town anymore.”

Kimball finished 10th in the season opener after fighting overheating, then what he termed a “reasonably catastrophic failure” the team in the brakes the team was still trying to diagnose. It was also his first race with new engineer Eric Cowdin, who replaced Brad Goldberg after Goldberg went to Ganassi’s Ford GT program.

“I think as a team, we fought some overheating issues,” Kimball explained. “I’m not sure if it was us, Chevy, or more than other people up and down pit lane. I know the engineers were surprised. We hadn’t seen a collection of debris. And so we’re going to have to figure out what it means for street circuits going forward.

“There were no clear answers. The last lap I went into Turn 1, and I had been fighting some brake fade for about 10 to 15 laps. It was a reasonably catastrophic failure, but I was lucky it happened into one, with more runoff, so it was a fairly minor impact at the end of the day.”

“I think it’s gone very well,” he added about the engineering switch. “The nice thing about driving for Chip and working there is that everyone is so good there. Everyone works so closely. Transitioning from Brad to Eric wasn’t a huge shakeup in the grand scheme of things. It was pretty seamless.”

Kimball, who started 13th at St. Petersburg and ahead of teammates Max Chilton (16th) and Tony Kanaan (19th), was frustrated to have not advanced out of his group in qualifying but still pleased that even on a tough day he still secured a top-10.

“We were disappointed with St. Pete, because we missed by .06 of a second in moving on. Just needed one more tenth,” he said.

“We had a fairly stout Group 1, though. Of five of the six that moved on, those five made it into the Firestone Fast Six. We also got caught up in the Munoz/Rahal incident, and we were on for a decent result.

“Between engaging reverse, stalling engine, and ending in tire barriers but still getting a top-10, you’ll take it in this field!

“You take everything you can get. The results that matter are the ones where you’ve overcome challenges, or getting to a new track. You have to pick up the pieces when you’re not on form.”

Kyle Busch interests McLaren for Indy 500, but team is leaning toward experience

McLaren Indy Kyle Busch
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With Arrow McLaren SP heavily weighing a fourth car for the Indy 500 next year, Kyle Busch is a candidate but not at the top of the IndyCar team’s list.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown addressed the possibility Wednesday morning during a video news conference with Gavin Ward, the team’s newly named racing director.

“I have not personally spoken with Kyle Busch, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has,” Brown said. “We want to make sure if we run a fourth car, we’re in the mindset that we want someone that is experienced around the 500. It’s such an important race, and from a going for the championship point of view, we’ve got three drivers that we want to have finish as strong as possible, so if we ran a fourth car, we’d want to be additive, not only for the fourth car itself, but to the three cars and so bringing in someone who’s not done it before potentially doesn’t add that value from an experience point of view.”

Busch will race the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next season in NASCAR under a new deal that will allow the two-time Cup Series champion to make his Indy 500 debut. Busch, who had a previous deal to run the Indy 500 nixed by Joe Gibbs Racing, openly courted Chevy IndyCar teams to contact him during his introductory news conference with RCR last month.

After Team Penske (which has given no indications of a fourth car at Indy alongside champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), McLaren is the second-best Chevy organization, and it’s fielded an extra Indy 500 car the past two years for Juan Pablo Montoya. The Associated Press reported last month that McLaren was in “serious conversation” about running Busch at Indy with Menards sponsorship.

But with its restructured management, the team is in the midst of significant expansion for 2023. AMSP is adding a third full-time car for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to team with Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and a massive new shop also is being built in the Indianapolis area.

“(It’s) not because of him but purely because of experience,” Brown said of Busch. “He’s an awesome talent and would be huge, huge news for the speedway. But yeah, I think everyone is under consideration if we decide to do it, but experience is right at the top of the list as far as what’s going to be the most important to us.”

And it seems likely there will be a veteran joining Rossi, O’Ward and Rosenqvist at the Brickyard.

“A fourth car at the 500 is very much under consideration,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves, but we wouldn’t be ruling out a fourth car in the future on a full-time basis. That definitely wouldn’t be for ’23. But as we expand the team and get into larger facilities and things of that nature, it’s something that Gavin and I have spoken about.

“I think we would be in a position to run a fourth car at the 500 this upcoming year. If we do decide to do that, we’ll make that decision soon for maximum preparation, and I would say we’re open minded to a fourth car in ’24 and beyond and probably will make that decision middle of next year in time to be prepared if we did decide to do that.”

Brown also addressed the future of Alex Palou, who will be racing for Chip Ganassi Racing next season after also signing a deal with McLaren. Though Brown declined to get into specifics about whether Palou had signed a new deal, he confirmed Palou will continue to test “our Formula One car from time to time.

“Everyone has reached an amicable solution,” Brown said. “We’ve now had Alex in our Formula One car as we have Pato. That will continue in the future, which we’re quite excited about. At this point we’re laser-focused on 2023 and glad to have the noise behind us and now just want to put our head down and get on with the job with the three drivers we have.”