Kimball: Time to move on, bank results that match No. 83 team’s pace

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First-lap incidents in the first two races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have left Charlie Kimball and the No. 83 Tresiba Honda team reeling and in need of a simple, clean weekend at this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Kimball’s one of six drivers in the 21-driver field who has qualified in the top-10 in both races so far, with ninth at St. Petersburg and seventh at Long Beach two very solid runs. In fact the Long Beach grid position is the best of his seven-year, 100-plus start career on street courses, supplanting an eighth at Detroit race one last year.

Alas, comings-together with Graham Rahal at St. Petersburg and Will Power in Long Beach, both at places where passing is difficult, have left him mired in 21st and last in the standings with 18th and last place finishes.

Needless to say, Kimball is hoping bad things don’t come in threes this weekend, as he’s keen on putting the past behind him.

“Obviously it’s been a tough start. It’s been frustrating,” Kimball told NBC Sports. “The results haven’t shown the true speed and pace of the team. Rolling off in ninth and seventh to start – seventh at Long Beach is my best street course qualifying effort ever – is great, but of course no one is talking about that.

“But the encouraging thing for me is the speed is there, in the car. We’re working better as a team and group. I believe in the 83 crew, in the work Eric (Cowdin, engineer), Scott (Harner, strategist) and Danielle (Shepherd, assistant engineer) are doing.

“We need a nice clean weekend. After testing, we know Phoenix next week is going to be challenging. So coming to Barber this weekend we need to put the past behind us.”

Kimball cleared the air with past Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Rahal after St. Petersburg, and said the door is open for Power to do the same after their second dust-up in four races (Watkins Glen last year). Power tried down Kimball’s inside at the challenging, tight right-hand Turn 4 and although was more than halfway alongside, the pair collided on corner exit with Kimball’s day done on the spot and Power struggling to 13th the rest of the race after front wing damage.

“Graham and I cleared the air really soon after St. Pete. There was a little disagreement and everyone’s entitled to an opinion,” Kimball said.

“I’m happy to have a conversation with Will. He hasn’t reached out to me. He was fired up; I’ll let him take the lead.

“I talked to the stewards and people within the industry. It was a racing incident. Will and I obviously both see it different. But I’m happy to have a conversation and a rational discussion with him. If you can talk about it privately, that’s when it’s meaningful.”

The race results don’t show it but seeing Kimball start this strongly in qualifying out of the gate means he’s gelled well in adapting to the Honda aero kit and engine, as has teammate Max Chilton who’s also seeking an improved result this weekend, when both had optimized the Chevrolet package last year.

“So far I’ve got most of it. The improvement in qualifying is natural progression,” said Kimball, who only once last season qualified in the top-10 in consecutive races – 10th at Barber and second at the INDYCAR Grand Prix – as part of six top-10 starts during the season.

“Part of it is experience-based. Being able to use the data and learn from the data of my teammates is huge, and Scott (Dixon) & Tony (Kanaan) are still two of the best in the series. Having Dario in his mentor/driving coach role as well is invaluable. When we take a step in qualifying, lately it’s been a one-way street. We’re not backsliding like we used to.”

Barber could be a welcome tonic for Kimball, as it’s one of his better tracks.

He scored his first career IndyCar top-10 finish here, 10th in 2011 from 21st on the grid in just his second start. He scored his first Firestone Fast Six appearance in 2013, qualifying fifth and finishing fourth after, incidentally, a dynamic late-race pass on Power for position. He’s been a steady 10th, 12th and ninth here the last three years.

“It’s a particularly challenging, technical track, with high, low and medium-speed corners,” Kimball explained. “If you were to say, pick a track with absolutely everything, it’s right there with Watkins Glen and Road America and has become a classic.

“This will be a challenge for the engineers. Friday and Saturday is hot, and Sunday cooler. Plus with having five or six different other rubber types here this weekend, that grip change is really noticeable when it’s hot. The oils come out differently. It adds another layer to the race weekend itself. Myself and Eric just need to stay focused to how we need to be doing, and try to best manage those things outside our control.”

A good trivia game appearance with friends earlier this week seems to have lifted his spirits, with success coming this week after a struggle in an earlier game. He hopes that off-track fun can translate on-track into a good run of form, starting with Barber this week in the first week of a back-to-back run between here and Phoenix.

“We had a really rough trivia experience over the weekend. We got whooped on!” Kimball laughed. “But a friend told me, ‘The thing about champions is they have short memories.’ We played a great game Monday night.

“So to me, I’m gonna try to apply the same principle here, and use that momentum for a great rest of year.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”