Max Chilton high on life heading into tonight’s Phoenix race

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Things are looking fairly great for IndyCar’s new No. 8 – rookie Max Chilton of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams.

The 24-year-old Englishman will roll off eighth for today’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix in the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the best start of his thus far two-race Verizon IndyCar Series career.

He’s actually the first driver who broke Luyendyk’s prior track record at Phoenix from 1996 in Friday qualifying, when he clicked off a 190.006 mph lap on the first of qualifying (although it was beaten as the day went on).

He’s also nearly eight years into a relationship with girlfriend Chloe Roberts, who he proposed to in the break between the St. Petersburg season opener and Phoenix this weekend.

For Chilton, life is good as he continues to appreciate the comfort level he has racing in America while still maintaining his UK roots.

“Ever since I came here for the start of last year, in Indy Lights, it’s so open and welcoming,” Chilton told NBC Sports.

And one of the luminaries who’ve made Chilton feel right at home is Mario Andretti.

In a recent Autosport article, Andretti said Chilton arrived with his Iowa Speedway win in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.

“Here again, it shows the moments of brilliance,” Andretti told Autosport’s Bruce Martin. “It shows that he can be versatile, which is huge. I think it is a huge attribute to any driver to show versatility. That is why Chip Ganassi hired him.

“Chip has always had a very good eye for drivers. Here is a guy with a bright future ahead of him and the best is yet to be seen.”

Ganassi, too, took the opportunity to praise him at St. Petersburg.

“We try to find successful guys with their future and want to do well, want to grow and be part of the team. I think Max has certainly some potential,” Ganassi told assembled reporters in St. Petersburg.

Chilton, understandably, was flattered by the praise.

“(Andretti’s) comments prove it! I’ve never done him any favors. He’s given me such kind words. It’s nice to know,” he said.

Things are a bit different for Chilton this week, with a new spotter and with team driver coach Dario Franchitti not at Phoenix owing to his commentary commitments for the FIA Formula E Championship. Franchitti still busts his chops, though…

But he’s still focused and determined to do his best even with the changes.

“Every race weekend is different. For the spotter, at the end of the day, you’re telling them what you want them to say, and thus far the spotter is doing a good job,” he said.

“And Dario gave me a lot of info before I came here, and he said he’s only a phone call away. That gives you a lot of confidence.”

As for the engagement? Chilton’s had it planned.

“It was the plan – seven years in the making!” Chilton said. “I always knew where I’d do it.

“I’m just glad I put the GoPro there. There’s things you just don’t remember! It’s great to see where it was.

“It was worse for her. She was so shocked. But I was planning it!”

He’ll be looking for more celebration tonight, as he’s already more comfortable at Phoenix in his second trip to the 1.022-mile oval after his first test there in February.

Jimmie Johnson open to racing Rolex 24 at Daytona in lower category to earn first watch

Jimmie Johnson Rolex 2023
Michael L. Levitt/LAT/USA/IMSA
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Jimmie Johnson could be making his last start in a prototype Saturday, but he still might be racing sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Le Mans in 2023.

Now that he’s done racing full time in the NTT IndyCar Series, Johnson said this week that his top three priorities for 2023 are 1) racing the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day (commonly known as “The Double”); 2) the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 3) the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Winning a Rolex 24 long has been a goal for Johnson, who has three overall runner-up finishes over nine starts in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

IMSA SEASON FINALE: Details for watching the Petit Le Mans

All of those were in the premier category, but with IMSA overhauling and rebranding the class (from DPi to GTP) next season, it seems there won’t be room for Johnson to return in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac. Johnson will be teamed with Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller in Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale, wrapping the second season of endurance races for the Action Express entry.

“I know the landscape with the new prototype class that’s come out, and frankly there’s just not enough cars or open seats available,” the seven-time Cup Series champion said during a Zoom news conference Tuesday. “So I don’t seen an opportunity in the premier division, but I am open to the other divisions on track and would love to finally earn one of those watches.”

That could mean Johnson (who bought an engraved Rolex after winning the 2006 Daytona 500 but wants to earn a signature trophy of sports car racing) entering in an LMP2 or LMP3 or perhaps a GT car for the first time at Daytona next year. He will have Carvana’s primary sponsorship in tow next year that he presumably could bring to a team.

The rest of the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s 2023 schedule also remains to be solidified. But it seems Johnson is nearly a lock for a 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in the lineup of the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro, which will be fielded jointly by Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR.

“The rest of it is just early,” he said. “In the coming weeks on all fronts, conversations will continue forward. I still feel I’m on a short list for the Garage 56 program in Le Mans next year and hope to get some clarity on that in the coming weeks or months. So I wish I had more to report at this point. It’s really about not returning full time to IndyCar, and now that I’ve made that decision and letting that news be known, I really feel like I’ll get some traction here and be able to solidify my schedule for ’23.”

Depending on the interest he draws, his options should be wide open. After racing a Honda the past two years and a Chevrolet for his 20-plus years in NASCAR, Johnson isn’t under contract to any manufacturer or team next year.

Here’s what else Johnson has said about what he wants to do in ’23:

IndyCar: Though his IndyCar track record was much stronger on ovals, Johnson seems open to any part-time schedule.

“I’m running out of specific events that are bucket list races (in IndyCar), and truthfully, that’s kind of what led to my decision to not come back full time,” Johnson said. “But I still am open to tracks that are important to me, races that are important to me and doing it with people and teams that are important to me, so if something develops with Chip (Ganassi) that’s a mixed bag of road and street courses and some ovals, I’m open to it. I’m open to just ‘the Double’ or the Indy 500 alone. I really do have a clean sheet of paper and eager to see what meaningful opportunities develop and make sense.”

Though he is free to talk with other teams, Johnson said returning with Chip Ganassi Racing would be his first choice after racing with the team since 2021.

“I’ve really only spoken to Chip,” he said. “I truly feel like I’m part of the family at CGR. If I’m in IndyCar, that’s really where I want to be. I know that team. I know the inner workings of it. I do feel like we’re working hard to continue the relationship together, so that would really be my intentions if I was able to put something together and come back in IndyCar, I’d love for it to be there.”

NASCAR: Johnson mentioned again that being a past winner of The Clash and All-Star Race previously granted him long-term eligibility for those events (NASCAR since has changed its criteria), so the exhibitions in Los Angeles and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, are on his radar.

“I do have a few years left on my eligibility for the Clash and for the All-Star Race, so I’m surprised no one has really asked or pushed hard to this point yet,” he said. “I guess I’ve been busy in IndyCar, and people assume my schedule is tied up. But looking forward, those would be easy opportunities to come back, but honestly I’ve not had an in-depth serious conversation with anyone yet on any of those fronts.

“I’d love to go to Wilkesboro. I’ve never driven on that racetrack. Lowe’s corporate offices were just down the street, so I’ve driven by it many times. I went on a long bike ride with Matt Kenseth and some friends a few years ago and actually rode my bicycle around the track. So I’d love to go back in a proper race car and event someday and hopefully that opportunity can develop.”

Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 (which put Kimi Raikkonen in the Cup race at Watkins Glen International) would provide an avenue for Johnson’s re-entry to stock cars.

“Justin’s been a longtime friend and someone I stay in touch with, and he’s certainly made it known that the Project 91 car is available if I have interest,” Johnson said. “So I would need to continue those conversations forward.”

–“The Double”: In trying to become the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to race 1,100 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in the same day, Johnson believes the logistics should be easier. Namely, he won’t have a full-time commitment in either IndyCar and NASCAR, and the reduced Cup schedule for practice and qualifying should free up more time.

“When drivers did it in the past, we had a lot more on-track activity for both series, certainly on the NASCAR side,” Johnson said. “I think how the NASCAR format works now, there’s less of an ask in time. So I do feel like the potential to apply myself and have physically enough time to pull it off is there. I do think the reduced schedule and not running the full IndyCar schedule will give me the time I need before and after to seriously focus and dedicate everything I can and would need to give my best performance in both races.”