Chilton caps off stellar month of May with hard luck P4 at Indy 500

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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.”

Photo: IndyCar

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.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.