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Trio of Indy 500 sophomores look to build off 2017 rookie efforts

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The rookie battle at last year’s Indianapolis 500 was one for the ages, with Ed Jones, Zach Veach, Jack Harvey, and a certain two-time Formula 1 world champion named Fernando Alonso all embarking on their first Indy 500 efforts last year.

In the end, it was Alonso who took Rookie of the Year honors. But, as he returns to the Monaco Grand Prix this year – an event he skipped to run last year’s Indy 500 – it leaves Jones, Veach, and Harvey as the returning sophomores looking to build on their efforts from last year.

While Alonso was ROTY, Jones was actually the highest finishing rookie, coming home third behind Helio Castroneves and race winner Takuma Sato. And, a number of circles felt that Jones was more deserving of “Top Rookie” honors.

Indeed, it’s hard to argue against it. Thrust into the role of “lead driver” in the wake of Sebastien Bourdais’ qualifying accident and subsequent injuries, Jones turned in a performance nothing short of outstanding.

He qualified a very solid 11th, and drove an even stronger race to finish third, even overcoming a hole in the nose of the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda to do so.

He returns in 2018 with higher expectations as a part of the powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing team. He has shown flashes of the potential he showed last year – finishes of eighth in St. Petersburg and third at Long Beach are highlights, and he was running a strong second at ISM Raceway before a late crash – but three finishes of 20th or worse (20th, 22nd, and 22nd) leave him 14th in the standings.

But, a strong “500” effort will do wonders for negating those struggles.

“So far, so good here over our first few runs today,” said Jones, who was 18th at the end of Day 1 of practice. “Of course, qualifying is important, but you need to have a really good race car for the following week. This car drafts up very well to the other cars, maybe even better than the car we had last year. Over the next few days, we’ll work on how that plays out with the NTT DATA car, and have things ready to go when it’s time for the race.”

Elsewhere, Veach and Harvey will look to improve on 2017 efforts that were about learning. For Veach, he qualified 32nd in a third effort for A.J. Foyt Racing, but dropped out after 155 laps due to a mechanical failure.

His early races with Andretti Autosport have shown promise – he finished fourth at Long Beach and was running in the Top 6 early on at Barber Motorsports Park before losing the ability to make adjustments inside the car, and he ultimately faded to 13th.

Zach Veach looks to . Photo: IndyCar

A strong “500” effort will be a boon for Veach moving forward in his debut IndyCar season.

“I think for our first day, we couldn’t have asked for more,” said Veach, who was 10th fastest on Day 1. “The car is in a pretty good window, so now it’s just tweaking the balance for each individual driver on the team. It’s a high contrast between my first Indy 500 (2017) and starting my second already. I’m just excited to see what we can do the rest of the week with Andretti Autosport. So far things have been great, and I think they’ll keep progressing that way.”

Harvey, too, will look for a better go-round in his second “500” attempt. Last year, in a joint effort with Andretti Autosport and Meyer Shank Racing (they called Michael Shank Racing), Harvey qualified 27th, but crashed out on Lap 65 trying to avoid a similarly crashing Conor Daly.

Jack Harvey. Photo: IndyCar

Harvey and the Meyer Shank squad, now in a joint effort with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – with whom Harvey contested the final two races of 2017 – have run two races together in 2018 – at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. While they crashed after suffering a cut tire in St. Pete, the Long Beach event was a solid rebound, as they finished 12th.

The “500” presents them with a chance to break into the Top 10, and when combined with a partnership with an SPM squad that has been strong at the Indy 500 in the past, the tools are there for a nice effort from this bunch.

Day 1 of practice saw Harvey 28th on the board, though he completed the most laps – 107 –  of anyone.

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Podcast: James Hinchcliffe might find a silver lining in disguise at Indy after ‘an emotional roller coaster’

Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway
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INDIANAPOLIS – No one could blame James Hinchcliffe for going incognito at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, and he might do exactly that on the eve of the Indianapolis 500.

But it won’t be because the SPM driver is bummed about missing the biggest race of the IndyCar season. Actually, it’s because the crushing disappointment of getting bumped from the field a week ago might have a silver lining.

“I’ve heard all these stories from way back when to the present day of what it’s like just outside the speedway on Saturday night before the race,” Hinchcliffe said during a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that was recorded and released Saturday. “Up Georgetown (Road), in the Coke Lot, you hear all these crazy stories about all these crazy parties and the rest of it.

“And honestly, we’re always isolated in our little bubble inside the speedway in the drivers lot. Part of me is tempted to dress up in disguise and just venture out there and see what it’s all about. I’m very tempted to do that and maybe document some of the exploits out there.”

And if Hinchcliffe lingers well into the night? Well, it’s not as if he has a 500-mile race to worry about Sunday.

“I know the (track’s) cannon is going to go off at 6 a.m. (Sunday) and wake us up, but I have fewer responsibilities tomorrow than most of my colleagues,” the Canadian said with a laugh.

Of course, it still has been one of the longer weeks in the life of a 31-year-old who is ranked fifth in the points standing and seemed on track for a career season. Before Indy, Hinchcliffe’s average finish in the first five races was 5.8, including a third at Barber Motorsports Park.

But the momentum screeched to a halt when his No. 5 Dallara-Honda was knocked out of the field in the closing hour of the opening day of qualifying at the Brickyard last Saturday.

Hinchcliffe gamely accepted the outcome with a series of graceful interviews shortly afterward and has maintained a brave face during a week of promotional appearances

“It’s been an up and down week,” he said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. The term good days and bad days doesn’t even apply. You have good hours and bad hours.

“The busier I’m keeping myself, the better I’m feeling. There were times you have that little driver tantrum in your head like, ‘I don’t want to do any of this stuff because I’m in a bad mood! And blah, blah blah.’ But talking about it helps you get over it, and staying busy takes your mind off it a little bit.”

Still, there is no escaping the reality of when the green flag falls on the 102nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“Sunday is probably going to suck,” he said. “There’s no way around that. The start of the race is really going to suck. Then when I see how hard it is out there, I might think it sucks a little less.”

It has been easier to swallow because of “fan support that has just been completely overwhelming,” and Hinchcliffe of course has a perspective about Indianapolis that few have after a near-fatal practice crash in 2015 (“(Missing the race) actually wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had at Indianapolis Motor Speedway”).

His comeback from the brush with death brought his team closer together, and he’s hoping the latest spate of adversity will do the same.

“One of the hardest parts was just being back with the crew right afterward, getting back to the garage and seeing a group of like 10 grown men literally brought to tears over what just happened,” said Hinchcliffe, whose team misjudged the amount of time left in the session after a tire vibration problem quickly ended what would be his final attempt. “It shows you how much this race means. If we had a really bad crash at Detroit on Saturday morning and couldn’t get the car fixed in time for Sunday. We’d all be like, ‘Man that really sucks. We’ll fix the car and come back next week.’

“But not getting to start Indy, man, is just such a gut punch for these guys and for all of us. But at the same time, it brought us closer as a group. There were mistakes made that we’re going to learn from. There’s no doubt that we come back as a stronger unit because of this. Emotionally, from a preparation point of view, from an execution point of view.”

There was a jolt of positivity from a second-place finish in a pit stop competition Friday. Hinchcliffe’s team, which has posted the fastest pit stop in two races this season, fell to Scott Dixon’s team in the final after pulling out a surprise victory over Will Power’s crew from the non-preferred right lane in the semifinals.

“Even if we beat Dixon in the finals, it wouldn’t have felt as good as that win did,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was such an awesome performance. The guys have been killing it in the pits. It’s definitely a point of pride for us.

“It was fun to get back in the car and do something for the fans and do something for the boys. We won a check at the end of the day. Add it to the beer fund and go have a fun Sunday night.”

Other topics discussed in the podcast:

–How and why he became a popular star by learning how to showcase his affable personality early in his career;

–Why the IndyCar Series needs a driver to play the villain role;

–An expanded explanation of why he believes the Indianapolis 500 should be separate from the championship;

To listen to the podcast, click here for Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or play the Art19 embed below: