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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.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).