INDIANAPOLIS – It speaks volumes of the confidence and maturation of Max Chilton in his second go-around at the Indianapolis 500 that a Verizon IndyCar Series career-best fourth place, after leading a race-high 50 laps in the No. 8 Gallagher Honda or Chip Ganassi Racing, was a proper disappointment.
But indeed, Chilton’s capped off a month where he’s banked back-to-back IndyCar career-best results – first a seventh place in the INDYCAR Grand Prix and then fourth on Sunday in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil – and has leapt from 18th to 11th in the points standings as a result.
Chilton looked a realistic winner for most of the race after recovering from an ill-handling car in his first stint. He started 15th but tumbled to 27th in the first 26 laps before his first pit stop.
The gamble that paid dividends though was to go off sequence and pit during the second full-course caution period on Lap 68. Once a further full-course caution flew on Lap 81 for debris, Chilton and Will Power stayed out while the rest of the field pitted.
That netted him the lead for the first time on Lap 84 and vaulted him from 24th up the order. The track position was key and as Chilton found, his car was excellent in clean air but struggled once he got behind others. Nonetheless, his strategy and hopes would ebb and flow the rest of the race as he remained part of the top 10 runners.
It was setting up that Chilton and Power were positioning themselves to pull an Alexander Rossi-type-of strategy from there and make the race on one fewer pit stop, but that idea ended when Chilton bailed out and pitted on Lap 124 with five others, including eventual third place finisher Ed Jones. It kept them off-sequence but meant they’d still need to do two more stops before taking the checkered flag.
Chilton returned to the lead on Lap 139 as others pitted and after a quick exchange with Ganassi teammate Charlie Kimball, led from Laps 148 through to 165, before another caution flew as Kimball’s Honda engine expired.
The Kimball caution took everyone’s possible strategic elements out of play and positioned the field for a final sprint to the finish.
It was there Chilton showcased his race craft, with excellent defense against Jones, Helio Castroneves, and eventual winner Takuma Sato.
Chilton had to watch in the rear view mirror as Sato completed his move of the race, a three-wide around the outside double pick-off of Castroneves and Jones, prior to Fernando Alonso’s retirement.
Chilton defended on the final five laps from Sato, then Castroneves, before Castroneves got around him for the lead on Lap 194. Sato followed him through for second on the same lap, and Jones got him for third a lap later to leave the Reigate, England native in an unrepresentative fourth place.
As with Jones though, Chilton had shown he properly belonged at the front of the field.
“The Gallagher Honda was struggling a lot early in the race and we even went a lap down,” Chilton said post-race. “But we kept our heads down, kept going and got a break. I don’t think anyone has ever won this race without a little bit of luck.
“When we did end up getting out front, the car was really quick, and you can see why this place is so special and so electric in that moment.
“I held (Takuma) Sato off with everything I had, but when the cars gang up behind you, they get a massive run and you can only do so much as the leader. As soon as they got past, I wasn’t as confident in the dirty air.
“To come from a lap down to lead and have a chance to win here at Indy is a massive accomplishment for the whole team.”
The race for Chilton played out almost exactly as he predicted on Thursday, when we spoke to him during Indianapolis 500 media day.
“Temperature wise I don’t think there’s much in it. I think Honda has the best package overall for racing, power, and fuel economy,” Chilton told NBC Sports then. “Ed (Carpenter) looked strong in qualifying but whether they’re strong over a stint is a different matter. I know the Penskes are struggling, which is a sign Chevrolet is, because they’re the ‘works’ team.
“I feel good in what Scott’s got; he was quickest in qualifying and I was strongest in ‘race day running,’ if you want to call it that. But I feel we’ve got a good package. Maybe 22 others can win though! You’ve got to do the best job you can though and if it’s your day, it’s your day.”
Chilton was bullish even on Thursday that he knew he had a car that could win, and wouldn’t be happy unless he did. He so very nearly backed that up with a performance worthy of a victory.
“I want to win it! To be honest top-fives are pointless here. Charlie, my teammate, has been finished top five a few times here, and he said, ‘I was third here once – I won an interview – and that was it.’
“There’s no such thing as a podium here; if you’re second you’re first loser, and it’s a face that doesn’t particularly look like yours that’s on the Borg-Warner Trophy!”
Indeed Chilton’s face is not Sato’s, but after an effort like Chilton, in tandem with engineer Brandon Fry and strategist Julian Robertson put together on Sunday, that day when his face appears on the trophy could come soon enough.