INDIANAPOLIS – Conor Daly’s made a big deal about his partnership with Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee’s brand new T-shirt company, ShirtsforAmerica.com this month.
Fellow young American Sage Karam made waves and created running jokes about his own lack of shirts last year.
Yet neither of those two drives for the team you could accurately dub as “Team America,” this month, in Ed Carpenter Racing.
With Josef Newgarden, JR Hildebrand and team owner/driver Ed Carpenter, there’s a three-headed monster of freedom coming from Rows 1, 5 and 7 in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Newgarden carries the team’s best hopes with a car, the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet, which is considered by many in the paddock as one of the leading contenders to win Sunday’s race.
The 25-year-old American won the Freedom 100 here in 2011 but that would pale in comparison to anything he’d pull off on Sunday, if he pulls it off.
“I got spoiled the first year I was here,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “It couldn’t go much better that. But I haven’t had a race here anything close to that since.
“It’d probably be similar, times 10, for the Indy 500. Yeah there’s a great crowd then. But if it were to happen on race day, it would probably be sensory overload.”
Frankly he’s due for a result of any note here given his past four starts have ended 25th, 28th, 30th and ninth. But Newgarden made the key point that finishes in the Indy 500 don’t matter at all unless it’s a win; he’s also got a specially designed Brett King Designs helmet that features a tribute to inaugural 1911 Indy 500 winner Ray Harroun.
“I feel like nothing matters here unless you win,” he told me Monday after the final full day of practice.
“Man, the worst place you can finish here is second. Third is great for points. But it’s another year you didn’t win. Winning is the only thing acceptable at this place.
“It’s more heightened here. People remember who won the Indianapolis 500 and they don’t remember anything else. You come here to win this race.
“It’s a balancing act, but if it came down to it, I’d go for the win over points, because it’s the Indianapolis 500.”
A guy who of course famously went for the win, and lost, was one of Newgarden’s teammates in JR Hildebrand, in 2011.
The driver of the No. 6 Preferred Freezer Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet rolls off 15th on Sunday and sadly his runner-up finish of five years ago still is the first thing that is associated with the talented, still only 28 years old Californian out of Sausalito, who now lives in Colorado.
But the last two years have seen Hildebrand end best of the one-off entries, 10th and eighth, and neither time with the best pit crew.
Now he’s armed with a better crew and arguably an ace in the hole from the engineering side in Steve Newey, who ironically, was a co-owner of the winning car that beat Hildebrand in 2011. Newey was with Bryan Herta Autosport at the time, as the two watched Dan Wheldon’s No. 98 car fly past the semi-stranded JR.
“It’s been interesting working with new guys,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports. “It’s been engineering by committee, in large part because Josef is a legit title contender, so they’ve wanted continuity for his program.
“But here, Steve has been great. He has given a great feel for what goes on at this place. After this extra car effort now the last couple years, I have the best crew now in these three years.”
Both Hildebrand and Carpenter are happier with their cars in race trim compared to what they’ve shown thus far in qualifying. Carpenter starts his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet from the same position – 20th.
“I feel really good with the balance in race trim. It’s been frustrating here and there to not get speed out of it,” Carpenter told NBC Sports.
“But last year we all dealt with cars hard to drive, that were unpredictable and inconsistent. Now they’re consistent and predictable.
“Yeah I qualified better last year, but this year I am more comfortable with our car going into the race to legitimately get up front, much more so than last year.”
Here’s another nicer element of the year for ECR at Indy compared to last year – they’ve been clean.
Massive accidents for both Newgarden (airborne) and Carpenter (heavy Turn 2 plus some air) contributed to a nightmare month in 2015 and yet this month, they’ve all been clean.
Carpenter was also quick to hail Newgarden’s growth and development as he’s ascending into the top tier in the series, and really the only younger driver (south of 30 years old) who’s done so consistently in recent years.
“I think Josef gets better all the time. He’s entering the prime part of his career,” Carpenter explained.
“The biggest difference I’ve noticed here is his confidence, in himself and the car at this track. He’s been one of the guys to beat every time this month. Confidence is building. Car is fast.”
How does Carpenter balance the dilemma of wanting to win an elusive first ‘500 himself versus either of his teammates?
“That’s what good about teammates and having strong ones. It helps at the same time,” he said.
“There’s a couple times this week I thought about taking cars to shop and swapping paint jobs. His is so fast!
“But I’d never do that. I’m so happy that our cars are well prepared. We’re going for it.”