AVONDALE, Ariz. – We noted prior to Saturday’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix that Chip Ganassi Racing Teams’ Max Chilton is high on life with a series of good life events to go along with his best qualifying run in two Verizon IndyCar Series races.
He backed it up nicely Saturday night with a seventh place result, after a clean, smooth and mature beyond his years drive in his maiden oval start in an IndyCar.
The driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet had of course won in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Iowa Speedway last year, but Saturday night’s 250-lapper in an IndyCar was only his third ever oval race.
But he ran as high as fourth and never dropped below 11th, having stayed on the lead lap for all 250 laps. The only downside, he thought, was losing a couple positions on pit stop and at one point losing out to Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal on Lap 153 following a restart – hardly room for blame.
As Chilton related post-race, it was almost a nice feeling to have known he’d not only done a great job, but felt it could have ended even better.
“I’m really, really happy with it,” Chilton told NBC Sports. “It’s weird that considering this was my first ever oval experience in IndyCar, I’m slightly disappointed with seventh. Because we could have easily done what (Simon) Pagenaud did, and he got second. We had a slight problem with getting into first gear on a stop. A half second is the difference in two places.
“But it’s different. I thought we’d got Rahal in the last stop. He was half a nose ahead of me. There was a lot to learn. And the restarts were pretty mental!”
Chilton wound up doing a better job of fuel saving than he realized throughout the race, which helped pay dividends – particularly as passing was difficult to achieve.
“It was difficult. The last stint was easier with new tires. (Tony Kanaan) made it look easy. But it wasn’t that easy! I was just happy to get the result. I never did a lap flat, today. I was literally just fuel saving.
“It wasn’t really fuel saving – the team weren’t telling me to do so – but it was to a point as you couldn’t follow. I was looking after my tires. The third stop, the Andretti guys all stopped early. I got lucky twice where we were just about to pit, and then there was yellow.”
It’s funny Chilton mentions that; he benefited whereas Hunter-Reay lost out, twice, pitting just before a yellow came out.
He also earned praise from Ganassi driver coach Dario Franchitti, who missed Phoenix due to his FIA Formula E Championship commentary commitments, and Ganassi managing director Mike Hull.
Chilton unfortunately had an issue post-Phoenix en route to Charlotte, as he posted a photo of his bag having taken a beating on par with a car into the Phoenix SAFER barrier.
Behind Chilton on Saturday night of the other oval first-timers, Alexander Rossi finished an unrepresentative 14th after running as high as sixth; Conor Daly got his car feeling better and was a solid 16th, despite losing time after running out of fuel at one point, and Luca Filippi ended 20th after an early spin to bring out the first yellow.
In total, the four oval debutantes completed 992 of a possible 1,000 race laps – no small achievement.