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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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Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”