IndyCar 2017 driver review: Mikhail Aleshin

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. After a strong return in 2016 following a one-year absence, Mikhail Aleshin’s encore campaign didn’t go to plan and ultimately ended after Mid-Ohio in late July.

Mikhail Aleshin, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

  • 2016: 15th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 1 Pole, 1 Podium, 3 Top-5, 4 Top-10, 120 Laps Led, 10.9 Avg. Start, 13.9 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 19th Place (12 Starts), Best Finish 6th, Best Start 6th, 0 Top-5, 3 Top-10, 1 Lap Led, 13.1 Avg. Start, 13.8 Avg. Finish

The obvious potential, sneaky cool “don’t care” attitude and fearless display Mikhail Aleshin had shown in his first two full seasons of IndyCar didn’t carry over into his third, in a year of regression for the “Mad Russian.”

Aleshin’s deal for 2017 was struck late and only confirmed a month before the season opener in St. Petersburg. After his car had appeared in full SMP Racing livery in 2014 and 2016, a toned down – albeit still striking – cherry red and black livery made it obvious this wasn’t a full boat SMP Racing effort as it had been previously.

A rather ragged first half the season followed, with Aleshin drawing the ire of several of his competitors – notably Tony Kanaan, JR Hildebrand and longtime sparring partner Sebastien Bourdais – through the first four races. A quiet month of May in Indianapolis was needed and a solid, under-the-radar P13 in the Indianapolis 500 fit that bill nicely, along with a season-best sixth place in Detroit race one.

But from Texas his year unraveled completely. Kanaan was to the inside and James Hinchcliffe to the middle with Aleshin on the outside heading into Turn 3; contact followed as Kanaan came up the road needing to make the corner entry, and with another car spearing Aleshin to take him out. Rumors swirled at the time that Aleshin had driven his final race for the team.

After Texas, Aleshin only had two more full weekends in the car. He missed Road America Friday practice owing to visa issues returning from the 24 Hours of Le Mans. At Iowa, where he’d been a top-five finisher a year earlier, he crashed out early. He was sat for Toronto before making a one-race return at Mid-Ohio. With another incident in practice, Aleshin produced 14th place before he and the team went their separate ways, and Aleshin instead focused on development of SMP Racing’s new LMP1 prototype for 2018.

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)