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2017 Indy 500 driver-by-driver one-liners

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INDIANAPOLIS – As is a quick tradition on MotorSportsTalk, we’ve put together some quick one-liners on the field of 33 drivers set to compete in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Sadly some one-liners stretch to two or three lines. Because words.

Included in the field are seven past winners and four rookies. Past one-liners are linked here (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016).

Without further adieu, the 2017 edition:

Row 1

9-Scott Dixon, Camping World Honda

TDZ: In a year where there’s not been a clear favorite defined or established, the polesitter, in a Honda, the greatest all-around driver in the series and one of the greatest in IndyCar history is the favorite here to win Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, and end a drought for polesitters dating to Helio Castroneves in 2009.

20-Ed Carpenter, Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet

TDZ: A potential hugely popular winner; Carpenter has looked great in both single-car running and in traffic thus far. For the first time since his accident in practice two years ago, vintage “oval master Ed” is back in search of that first ‘500 victory.

98-Alexander Rossi, NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda

TDZ: More relaxed, more experienced and even faster this year than last. If Rossi’s debut month of May was stellar, his sophomore year is next-level. Has a serious chance to defend his crown, but this time would understand the significance in the moment.

Row 2

26-Takuma Sato, Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda

TDZ: Sato is known for his tenacious “no attack, no chance” style but he’s been far more consistent this month – and year – than in recent years. From his best Indy 500 starting position he has by far his best possible win chance, if he can avoid any pitfalls.

29-Fernando Alonso, McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda

TDZ: You’ve heard the two-time Formula 1 World Champion is racing at Indianapolis, right? Perhaps? Maybe? Snark aside, Alonso’s been on it from day one. How he handles the Indy race craft and procedural aspects will define his day. An ideal finish for me? Fourth to eighth, to leave him close enough to the front, but wanting more.

21-JR Hildebrand, Preferred Freezer Service Chevrolet

TDZ: Imagining a JR win at Indy – after his infamous final lap in 2011 and contact with Helio Castroneves last year that cost both drivers a shot – is imagining one of the best possible story lines that could drop on Sunday.

Row 3

10-Tony Kanaan, NTT Data Honda 

TDZ: He hasn’t looked especially great in practice, but this is TK, he’s got his usual engineer back in Eric Cowdin and this is Indy. I picked him to win this race preseason, and I’ll be highly surprised if he isn’t in contention late again Sunday. 

27-Marco Andretti, United Fiber & Data Honda

TDZ: A quiet air of confidence is there around Andretti this year that hasn’t been in recent years. This feels his best shot to break back into win contention since 2014, and with Bryan Herta on the box, he has the defending champ strategist in his corner. 

12-Will Power, Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet

TDZ: Thus far Penske’s best driver results-wise in the weeks leading up to the race, Power remains in search of his first Indy 500 win. Could this be the year?

Row 4 

28-Ryan Hunter-Reay, DHL Honda

TDZ: His qualifying draw hurt his chances of a Fast Nine position, but “RHR” has been solid and steady all month. Motivated to get his second ‘500 win and end a long winless drought overall, I fully expect at least a top-three run here. 

19-Ed Jones, Boy Scouts of America Honda

TDZ: The Dubai-based Brit has been the undoubted welcome surprise of the month. He’s been very solid on ovals. Not a likely winner, but could well eclipse Alex Lloyd (fourth in 2010) or the late Justin Wilson (fifth in 2013) as a Coyne top-five finisher.

16-Oriol Servia, Manitowoc Honda 

TDZ: Would it not be surprising to once again see Servia running fourth or fifth with 20 laps to go, after not paying much attention to him all day? That’s the line of note for the popular Catalan in his 200th career start.

Row 5

7-Mikhail Aleshin, SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

TDZ: Other than a hold-your-breath moment in Monday practice, and a line questioning some drivers’ anatomies, the usually “Mad Russian” has been quieter than normal this month. Expect that to change Sunday. 

15-Graham Rahal, Steak ‘n Shake Honda

TDZ: Rahal wanted this to be a better month and a move forward from 26th to 14th on the grid is a good start, but it hasn’t yet looked like a winning month. Rahal’s been good in several ‘500s past and has an ability to charge forward when the car’s right.

8-Max Chilton, Gallagher Honda

TDZ: Chilton entered the oval portion of the month on a high after a strong GP and has carried the momentum through. Perhaps not a winner, but stands a very good chance of bettering his 15th place of a year ago; say maybe seventh or eighth, here.

Row 6

83-Charlie Kimball, Tresiba Honda

TDZ: One of Indy’s more underrated solid drivers – Kimball has finished between third and 13th in five of his six ‘500s – now appears to have the right package at his disposal. Armed with new engineer Todd Malloy, he could surprise once again.

5-James Hinchcliffe, Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

TDZ: Pole last year, 17th this year. It’s been baffling to see the No. 5 car this far down the order, but if the car’s better in race pace than it’s appeared in practice and qualifying, Hinchcliffe can succeed.

22-Juan Pablo Montoya, Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet

TDZ: JPM will have the world at his disposal as a one-off entry this race. With nothing to lose, they can try a strategy play, a traffic play, or a pure pace play to move to the front from P18 on the grid.

Row 7

3-Helio Castroneves, Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet

TDZ: In his eternal quest for his fourth Indy 500 victory, Castroneves has downplayed the lack of single-lap pace and hailed his race pace. Having been busy all month, it wouldn’t shock to see Castroneves emerge as a winner from 19th.

77-Jay Howard, Lucas Oil/Team One Cure Honda

TDZ: Howard starts 20th for his first Indy 500 in six years, the same place he started in his 2011 debut. He’s been quietly good all month and a top-12 seems achievable with a clean race.

24-Sage Karam, DRR Mecum Auctions Chevrolet

TDZ: With a car that looks dynamic in traffic, and a driver who can make moves like nobody’s business, Karam is an excellent pick to steal the show. Of course, the big question mark here is whether his Mecum car will make it all 200 laps.

Row 8

2-Josef Newgarden, hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet

TDZ: This wasn’t in the script for Newgarden at Penske – his old team starts second and sixth while his new one has four of its five drivers starting 18th or worse. Is there a Newgarden or Penske magic act in store for Sunday?

1-Simon Pagenaud, Menards Team Penske Chevrolet

TDZ: Pagenaud’s weird season title defense tour rolls into Indianapolis where somehow, he’s finished top-five each of the first five races, led the points prior to qualifying, yet hasn’t looked “on it” all month. From 23rd, it’d be a surprise to see him win.

14-Carlos Munoz, ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet

TDZ: For having finished second twice, plus fourth among his four Indianapolis 500 starts, it’s weird to think of the 2016 runner-up as a longshot. But that’s what a change of scenery has done for him and in a rarity, he’s not got high expectations this year.

Row 9

88-Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing Chevrolet

TDZ: New team that has a lot of Indianapolis success individually elsewhere comes together for a debut run. This car is a hard one to project, but Chaves is a clean and consistent enough driver that a top-15 run could be achievable.

4-Conor Daly, ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet

TDZ: One of Indiana’s favorite sons, Daly and the Foyt team just has not had the speed of the other Chevrolet teams this week. After coming 22nd with a pit fire, then another fire before starting and a crash last year, a quiet top-20 finish would be a welcome run for him this year.

50-Jack Harvey, Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport Honda

TDZ: After a tough start to the month, both Harvey and Shank improve steadily each day. Pit stops for both in an IndyCar setting will be an adjustment but Harvey could be a good under-the-radar driver to watch in its flashy livery.

Row 10

63-Pippa Mann, Susan G. Komen Honda

TDZ: Mann has not had her best month of May in the extra Dale Coyne car, but enters with having finished her last six 500-mile races started since 2014. If she does the same again in 2017, a chance to better 18th from last year beckons.

11-Spencer Pigot, Oceanfront Recovery Chevrolet

TDZ: As last year, a crash interrupted Pigot’s week of practice. The usually steady pair of hands also started 29th last year and improved to 25th; he will look to do better as he’s reunited with Ricardo Juncos for his team’s Indy 500 debut.

44-Buddy Lazier, Lazier Racing-Stalk It-Tivoli Chevrolet

TDZ: Finishing is the first and most simple goal for Indy’s favorite underdog and 1996 champ, who’ve overachieved in limited laps with the Mitch Davis-led crew.

Row 11

17-Sebastian Saavedra, AFS Chevrolet

TDZ: One of several drivers who hasn’t been in IndyCar in a couple years back this year and with a new team. Saavedra will look to replicate his 32nd-to-15th drive with KV in 2014, with Juncos featuring some ex-KV personnel.

40-Zach Veach, Indy Women in Tech Championship presented by Guggenheim Chevrolet

TDZ: The likable young driver has had a challenging first month of May, and will look to finish first; top-20 or better will be a respectable target.

18-James Davison, GEICO Honda

TDZ: Although this is the backup car and the backup driver, Davison’s always a sure bet to be entertaining, fast, and a possible top-15 finisher if all the cards fall right.

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500