Alonso mania, plenty of questions dominating Indy practice week

There's Alonso, and then there's everyone else. Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – Great as the story of Fernando Alonso racing at this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is – and it is – it is not the only story of note this year.

The contrast between the amount of Alonso coverage and the amount of coverage for the other 32 drivers and cars competing here is stark, and that contrast has been arguably the most interesting part of the week.

As of Friday morning, each of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ established “big three” teams – Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport – had held a press conference and with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, AJ Foyt Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing all having two drivers in, and then cameos from Sage Karam (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing), Jay Howard (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Gabby Chaves (Harding Racing), most of the field has been in for interviews.

The line that the drivers are thinking but not saying publicly unless it is in a joking manner is that Alonso is the only driver racing this year. Both Conor Daly (Foyt) and Graham Rahal (RLL) have made that crack in their press conferences. Others in and around the field have expressed private concerns or frustration about Alonso’s presence dominating the story lines – for better or worse.

The story of Alonso racing at Indy now shifts from the shockwaves of announcing he’s doing it to the reality of him being on track, and that’s been what’s interesting to monitor as the week has progressed.

Alonso has not been tentative, that’s for sure. The driver of the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry has made two rather eye-popping three-wide passes – first on past winners Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya of Team Penske earlier this week, and then on Castroneves and Karam later. He’s also been unafraid to stick it down the inside at both Turns 1 and 3, and this morning, had a hairy moment exiting Turn 4.

After Thursday’s practice, Alonso said his comfort level in traffic is getting there, as he’s felt confident enough in the team around him to give proper feedback for changes.

“I was (running) behind a car just a couple of seconds in front, but we (tried some laps) without any car in front. We tested a couple of different trims and different setup options,” Alonso said Thursday. “The car felt quite OK from the very beginning of the morning, but then I think we did improve it during the day, so I’m quite happy.

“We worked still a lot on the race situation, keeping other guys out there and running in traffic. I think we found a good balance for traffic. I think tomorrow (Friday) we will concentrate a little bit more alone on qualifying, but the priority is the race.”

Beyond the two-time Formula 1 World Champion, the story lines do not revolve around any one dominant driver or team.

Thus far Marco Andretti, Will Power, Ed Carpenter and Jay Howard have been the four end-of-day practice leaders, and Sebastien Bourdais was fastest this morning before rain has hit the IMS track, and it remains to be seen whether more “Fast Friday” running will occur.

As Alonso goes, it seems so do questions about Honda reliability. Five engine issues for the manufacturer have brought reliability into the framework, but it also balances out the fact the Hondas have undoubted speed this year, and more capable bullets in the gun. Of its 18 entries, you could say at least a dozen of them have a realistic chance at great finishes, whereas with Chevrolet, about eight of its 15 entries seem poised to threaten the leaders.

Questions to ponder from here include these:

  • How can Honda balance reliability with its power? Will they have to risk turning the power levels down in order to keep the reliability there?
  • When might Team Penske show its full hand? The five drivers today were all on the dais and have locked in a laser focus for the race, and all are so dedicated to the singular goal of delivering Roger Penske a 17th Indianapolis 500 champion.
  • How can Ganassi continue to extract the maximum for its Honda kit in its first superspeedway race with it? Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan are past winners and Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton seem poised to overachieve.
  • Of the six Andrettis, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato look great, Alonso has looked good, and Alexander Rossi has been quietly lurking. Marco Andretti started strong but has seemed to regress. Rookie Jack Harvey has endured a rough week. Where do the Andretti six-pack of drivers shake out?
  • Is Carpenter poised to emerge ahead in the Chevrolet camp?
  • Does RLL have a surprise up its sleeve with Rahal and Oriol Servia, Servia in particular as he is working with last year’s race-winning engineer in Tom German? It’s the same story for SPM, where James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin have had interesting weeks and Howard has probably been the week’s biggest surprise.
  • How much will it rain the next few days, and how will it affect qualifying?

These stories, and more, will be set to play out over the next 48 to 72 hours.

Jimmie Johnson open to racing Rolex 24 at Daytona in lower category to earn first watch

Jimmie Johnson Rolex 2023
Michael L. Levitt/LAT/USA/IMSA
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Jimmie Johnson could be making his last start in a prototype Saturday, but he still might be racing sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Le Mans in 2023.

Now that he’s done racing full time in the NTT IndyCar Series, Johnson said this week that his top three priorities for 2023 are 1) racing the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day (commonly known as “The Double”); 2) the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 3) the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Winning a Rolex 24 long has been a goal for Johnson, who has three overall runner-up finishes over nine starts in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

IMSA SEASON FINALE: Details for watching the Petit Le Mans

All of those were in the premier category, but with IMSA overhauling and rebranding the class (from DPi to GTP) next season, it seems there won’t be room for Johnson to return in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac. Johnson will be teamed with Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller in Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale, wrapping the second season of endurance races for the Action Express entry.

“I know the landscape with the new prototype class that’s come out, and frankly there’s just not enough cars or open seats available,” the seven-time Cup Series champion said during a Zoom news conference Tuesday. “So I don’t seen an opportunity in the premier division, but I am open to the other divisions on track and would love to finally earn one of those watches.”

That could mean Johnson (who bought an engraved Rolex after winning the 2006 Daytona 500 but wants to earn a signature trophy of sports car racing) entering in an LMP2 or LMP3 or perhaps a GT car for the first time at Daytona next year. He will have Carvana’s primary sponsorship in tow next year that he presumably could bring to a team.

The rest of the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s 2023 schedule also remains to be solidified. But it seems Johnson is nearly a lock for a 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in the lineup of the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro, which will be fielded jointly by Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR.

“The rest of it is just early,” he said. “In the coming weeks on all fronts, conversations will continue forward. I still feel I’m on a short list for the Garage 56 program in Le Mans next year and hope to get some clarity on that in the coming weeks or months. So I wish I had more to report at this point. It’s really about not returning full time to IndyCar, and now that I’ve made that decision and letting that news be known, I really feel like I’ll get some traction here and be able to solidify my schedule for ’23.”

Depending on the interest he draws, his options should be wide open. After racing a Honda the past two years and a Chevrolet for his 20-plus years in NASCAR, Johnson isn’t under contract to any manufacturer or team next year.

Here’s what else Johnson has said about what he wants to do in ’23:

IndyCar: Though his IndyCar track record was much stronger on ovals, Johnson seems open to any part-time schedule.

“I’m running out of specific events that are bucket list races (in IndyCar), and truthfully, that’s kind of what led to my decision to not come back full time,” Johnson said. “But I still am open to tracks that are important to me, races that are important to me and doing it with people and teams that are important to me, so if something develops with Chip (Ganassi) that’s a mixed bag of road and street courses and some ovals, I’m open to it. I’m open to just ‘the Double’ or the Indy 500 alone. I really do have a clean sheet of paper and eager to see what meaningful opportunities develop and make sense.”

Though he is free to talk with other teams, Johnson said returning with Chip Ganassi Racing would be his first choice after racing with the team since 2021.

“I’ve really only spoken to Chip,” he said. “I truly feel like I’m part of the family at CGR. If I’m in IndyCar, that’s really where I want to be. I know that team. I know the inner workings of it. I do feel like we’re working hard to continue the relationship together, so that would really be my intentions if I was able to put something together and come back in IndyCar, I’d love for it to be there.”

NASCAR: Johnson mentioned again that being a past winner of The Clash and All-Star Race previously granted him long-term eligibility for those events (NASCAR since has changed its criteria), so the exhibitions in Los Angeles and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, are on his radar.

“I do have a few years left on my eligibility for the Clash and for the All-Star Race, so I’m surprised no one has really asked or pushed hard to this point yet,” he said. “I guess I’ve been busy in IndyCar, and people assume my schedule is tied up. But looking forward, those would be easy opportunities to come back, but honestly I’ve not had an in-depth serious conversation with anyone yet on any of those fronts.

“I’d love to go to Wilkesboro. I’ve never driven on that racetrack. Lowe’s corporate offices were just down the street, so I’ve driven by it many times. I went on a long bike ride with Matt Kenseth and some friends a few years ago and actually rode my bicycle around the track. So I’d love to go back in a proper race car and event someday and hopefully that opportunity can develop.”

Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 (which put Kimi Raikkonen in the Cup race at Watkins Glen International) would provide an avenue for Johnson’s re-entry to stock cars.

“Justin’s been a longtime friend and someone I stay in touch with, and he’s certainly made it known that the Project 91 car is available if I have interest,” Johnson said. “So I would need to continue those conversations forward.”

–“The Double”: In trying to become the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to race 1,100 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in the same day, Johnson believes the logistics should be easier. Namely, he won’t have a full-time commitment in either IndyCar and NASCAR, and the reduced Cup schedule for practice and qualifying should free up more time.

“When drivers did it in the past, we had a lot more on-track activity for both series, certainly on the NASCAR side,” Johnson said. “I think how the NASCAR format works now, there’s less of an ask in time. So I do feel like the potential to apply myself and have physically enough time to pull it off is there. I do think the reduced schedule and not running the full IndyCar schedule will give me the time I need before and after to seriously focus and dedicate everything I can and would need to give my best performance in both races.”