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IndyCar 2016 driver review: Charlie Kimball

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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the driver-by-driver recaps following the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, with a look at Charlie Kimball, who finished a career-best tied for ninth this year.

Charlie Kimball, No. 83 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2015: 12th Place, Best Finish 3rd, Best Start 6th, 2 Podiums, 3 Top-5, 5 Top-10, 21 Laps Led, 13.3 Avg. Start, 13.1 Avg. Finish
  • 2016: 9th Place, Best Finish 5th, Best Start 2nd, 2 Top-5, 11 Top-10, 5 Laps Led, 10.9 Avg. Start, 9.2 Avg. Finish

“Super Chuck” drove what I thought was his best season yet in six full-time campaigns. Where he drew the ire of the paddock was with how hard he raced, but that spoke to a driver growing in confidence and not afraid to mix it up because he was at a higher position in the field than where he used to be.

Consider that Kimball’s starting average this year ended at 10.9, which was the highest of his career, and by a significant margin (it had been 16.3 and 13.3 in 2014 and 2015). For a driver usually in the 12th-17th place range on the grid, now it was a case of qualifying 11th was a disappointment, when two or three years ago, that might have been considered a “good day.” This is, for example, why after qualifying a career-best second at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he was frustrated to finish “only” fifth.

Alas, instead of dicing with say, a James Jakes, an Ana Beatriz or a Sebastian Saavedra, Kimball’s races were now spent racing a Ryan Hunter-Reay, a Juan Pablo Montoya, a Graham Rahal or a Will Power more regularly. It takes time for a driver to integrate themselves into the lead group and from my perspective, I think the field was a bit rankled that the guy who they rarely used to think of as a legitimate threat had now become one.

Kimball was flat consistent, all year. He never got too high – for the first time since his rookie season of 2011 he didn’t grace a podium – but he was never too low, either. In 16 races, he finished between fifth and 12th 14 times, and had a total of 11 top-10 finishes. He finished better than where he started in 11 of 16 races, as well. The 31-year-old also led the field in laps completed, finishing a whopping 99.7 percent of the total laps at 2,066 of 2,070 – only a brake failure on the final lap at St. Petersburg prevented that number from being even higher.

Kimball is also underrated because he is such a nice guy off the track. It speaks to the dedication he has to his partner, Novo Nordisk, and the quality of the team assembled around him at Chip Ganassi Racing that he’s been there for 100 starts. Chip doesn’t keep guys he doesn’t think can produce, and even though there are commercial reasons why Kimball remains, the fact is he has improved year-by-year, every year, since arriving in 2011.

Another thing that really impressed me this year was how well Kimball and new engineer Eric Cowdin gelled. Cowdin had worked with Tony Kanaan for most of his career and with “TK” in the same team, you almost wondered if there would have been another reunion. Instead, Kimball and Cowdin clicked from the off, which was enough to dispel any concern that Kimball’s loss of ace engineer Brad Goldberg to Ganassi’s Ford GT sports car program would have an adverse effect on the program. Instead, Kimball took what he had learned the previous five years and applied it even more to drive his team forward.

It remains to be seen if Kimball will make that next leap from regular, consistent top-10 finisher to a bona fide multiple-race winner and championship contender. The field is still quite deep. But if he continues at that same rate of methodical progression, don’t be surprised to see him threaten the top-5 in points in the future.

Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”