INDIANAPOLIS – NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Townsend Bell seemed poised to break through several times in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, but a finish of 21st place wasn’t what the doctor ordered.
Driving the No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen/Robert Graham Honda for Andretti Autosport, Bell started fourth, then ran third for most of the opening stint before his first stop.
His car was even better after the first round of adjustments as he got into second immediately after and then into the lead on Lap 42. Bell for seven laps then and a further five laps (57, 113 to 116) while maintaining a top three position.
It marked the first laps Bell has led since the only prior lap led in his IndyCar career, one lap in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 then driving for Panther Racing.
Bell had several interesting moments during the race. At one point when defending against Josef Newgarden, Bell took a low line into Turn 1 and Newgarden drove well to avoid contact.
On Monday morning, Bell addressed a tweet from Ryan Briscoe, a veteran IndyCar and sports car competitor.
Then, on Lap 93, Sage Karam had gotten up to fourth in the No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing with Bell back to fifth.
Bell got back by into Turn 1, while Karam ran high following minor contact and then crashed hard into the Turn 1 wall. The 21-year-old American had started 23rd and gained 19 spots in the car that Bell had driven last year.
Bell was still in win contention until the final death knell for his race occurred on Lap 117, when making another round of pit stops, and it came after he and teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay were running one-two.
Bell and Hunter-Reay launched at nearly the identical time, with Bell then trying to accelerate out into the fast lane in trying to avoid Hunter-Reay, but also hitting Helio Castroneves, who continued unscathed.
Meanwhile the two Andretti Autosport teammates two collided and spun in the pit lane. At that point, arguably two of the best cars in the race – went down a lap and fell to 25th and 26th, respectively.
For this incident, Bell was assessed a pit safety infraction penalty and issued a stop-and-go penalty.
“It was a pretty straightforward day,” Bell told NBC Sports on Monday. “We had a race-winning car, running at the front. We saved fuel early on while Hinch and RHR took chance to lead. We tried to get ourselves in position for end of race.
“I had control off the car throughout the entire stint. Then I came in for the pit stop from the lead. Came off the jacks, the crew sent me, then RHR, then I thought, ‘I don’t want to hit my teammate,’ and he was going aroud Newgarden. Then I had no idea Castroneves was there. It just ping-ponged at that point. I fought hard to get us back on the lead lap. But from there, our day was pretty much done.”
Here were Bell’s quotes via Sunday’s post-race release: “He (Ryan Hunter-Reay) was pulling out and I’m not going to stop. What a shame. We had a great race car and we were saving fuel early on. The pit stops seemed pretty good.
“All of a sudden I’m leading, I think, when I come in. We pit, I get out before Ryan and he starts going. So I’m going around him outside and I didn’t know a car (Castroneves) was coming down. I guess the three of us were trying to occupy space for two cars. It took me and Ryan out. I’ll look at it but I don’t know what I could have done differently.”
Hunter-Reay’s post-race comments sung a similar tune: “Something out of our control happened. They said, ‘Go, go, go!’ It looked like Townsend (Bell) got into Helio (Castroneves) and bounced into me. At that point I would have just have waited until they got by. As a driver you can’t see anything (beside you in the pits). When you’re released, you go.
“The car was so strong. The only time we ever spent any time (slower) was because I was saving some fuel. Other than that, it was a rocket ship. Such a shame when you have a car like that. The car was great. We could have won this thing today.”
Bell briefly made it back to the lead lap despite a second penalty assessed for entering a closed pit on Lap 158. He was on the lead lap until his last stop and ultimately ended 21st; Hunter-Reay was 24th.
In the next couple weeks, Bell will resume his NBCSN broadcast booth responsibilities for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Firestone 600 (June 11, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at Texas Motor Speedway, and is also preparing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Scuderia Corsa. He has both the test day (June 5) and the race (June 18-19) scheduled.
He and his teammates, Sweedler and Jeff Segal, were all present together this month at IMS for qualifying.
Sunday’s result will likely be a tough one for Bell to swallow, because he had a fantastic month with Andretti Autosport, but ultimately too many incidents that reduced a potential winning run to a forgettable finish.