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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.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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