Chilton emerges P6, mixed in among veterans on Watkins Glen grid

Photo: IndyCar

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – The top five on the grid for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ penultimate round, the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen presented by Hitachi (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), are all 35 years of age or more and debuted in IndyCar at least a decade ago (from 1998 to 2005), if not earlier.

Then there’s rookie Max Chilton, the Formula One veteran in his maiden IndyCar campaign, who was the only one of the young bucks to break the trend of experience at the top of the grid and will roll off sixth on Sunday at Watkins Glen International.

Chilton, who’s wearing a James Hunt throwback tribute helmet this weekend, turned in his best road or street course performance of the season to end sixth in qualifying. It’s his best start on a road or street course this year, supplanting seventh place at the similar, picturesque Road America when he felt as though he was hindered by traffic and just missed advancing.

The Chip Ganassi Racing Teams quartet of cars has been strong all weekend and three of them made it through to the Firestone Fast Six, with Scott Dixon continuing his weekend pace for pole and and Tony Kanaan in fifth.

The driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, meanwhile, noted how much he’s got on with the 3.37-mile circuit that bares a strong resemblance to many of the classic road courses he raced in F1.

“They haven’t been here in recent years, but they’ve got plenty of experience here, and it makes everything easier,” Chilton said. “I already felt more at home coming to this track just because it’s such a fantastic track. It matches or has a lot of similarities to my favorite circuit, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, so it’s just fast, flowing, undulating very picturesque track, and I think everything together with Gallagher giving me a good car, it just came together.

“It wasn’t easy. It was definitely — I was surprised how close it was for such a big track, so there’s still a lot that could have gone wrong. Also we didn’t really know whether the red or the black was going to be quicker, and actually there wasn’t much in it anyway. Yeah, we got it all together, and it was nice to get a solid qualifying result together.”

While the qualifying for Chilton’s been respectable, his race results haven’t yet measured up. His Road America race went awry when he ran out of fuel at one point. His best result on a road or street course this year is 14th on two occasions, Long Beach and the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

“This circuit just stood out to me, and Road America is more what I’m used to, the faster flowing, especially here the lovely smooth surface. I’ve been brought up with nice tracks, so it’s a bit of a shock to the system when you come to bumpy surfaces. It was nice to drive here with a smoother circuit. Yeah, circuits do suit certain drivers, and this suits me like Elkhart Lake. The fast flowing corners I just prefer.

“It paid off today, as well, like it did in Road America. But the Road America race went awfully badly, so hopefully we can change that tomorrow.”

Polesitter Dixon praised Chilton’s performance.

“It’s good to see Max doing well. I think it’s definitely an eye-opener, I think, coming to the Verizon IndyCar Series, and especially if you’re a rookie,” Dixon said.

“You don’t get much additional time. You don’t really get many additional tests. It’s an extremely steep learning curve, and I think road courses like here at the Glen, he’s probably more used to as opposed to a bumpy street course or low-grip tracks that these cars are pretty tricky at.

“For me it’s been great to see him have a consistent weekend, a weekend that you can now see he’s getting confident in the car. Haven’t got to chat to him too much. I think all four cars have been pretty similar on setup actually, so it’s been a nice weekend for a lot of us to run in the same direction and hopefully keep moving in that way.”