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Downsized Ganassi team still packing plenty of punch

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Since 2011, Chip Ganssi Racing has brought at least four cars to the Indianapolis 500 – they even brought five cars in 2015.

However, with incumbents Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball departing for the newly formed Carlin Racing, the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season sees Ganassi only fielding two cars for Scott Dixon and Ed Jones.

And with the team opting not to field extra entries for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, its two-car assault will be left to contend with a four-car effort from Team Penske and a six-car effort from Andretti Autosport.

Even teams like Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports are bigger in numbers this year – Coyne with four entries, SPM with three (and a fourth in a partnership with Meyer Shank Racing).

Still, despite being down on size in comparison to previous years, the Ganassi effort is no less potent.

Scott Dixon was last year’s pole sitter, and with the fastest speeds turned in since 1996 – Dixon’s pole run came in at 232.164 mph.

And Ed Jones was no slouch either, qualifying 11th for Coyne and finishing third, despite suffering a damaged nose late in the race.

Still, while both impressed last year, they will look for better race results this year. Dixon led early and was running in the Top 5 before his infamous airborne crash after colliding with Jay Howard.

Jones, meanwhile, was somewhat frustrated in that he felt his No. 19 Honda was good enough to win if not for the aforementioned damage.

In short, even though it’s only two cars, Ganassi’s effort is no less stronger.

Tuesday’s practice was somewhat of a mixed bag for Dixon and Jones, however. While Dixon ranked second behind Marco Andretti, Jones was down in 27th, and 18th in the non-tow ranks.

Dixon’s non-tow lap was actually even slower, as he was 26th on the non-tow board.

However, the 2008 Indy 500 winner was not concerned.

“Not a bad day (on Tuesday),” said Dixon after Tuesday’s practice. “We worked on a number of things with the PNC Bank car. One of the most important was running in traffic out there with some other cars. We’ll get as much data as we can from those runs today, take a look at what we find and then apply it to the next steps for preparing the car for the race.”

He also explained in the post-practice press conference that a two-car effort is a little more challenging than their four-car efforts, in terms of gathering data, but also asserted that the working relationship with Jones is a positive one, even while Jones is still getting up to speed with the Ganassi team.

“It’s been good. (Ed) is super laid back and good to work with,” said Dixon. “I think on this combination (of only two cars), it’s a little more difficult. Ed is trying to get up to speed with our package and our car. They’ve tried some interesting stuff.”

Jones explained that his Tuesday struggles came as he and the team tried to find a perfect balance on his No. 10 NTT Data Honda, and that they will look to find more speed on Thursday and Friday.

“I wouldn’t say I was 100 percent happy with the NTT DATA car today. We’re continuing to focus and work on the balance of the car. That’s really the main thing. There are so many variables and things to try to make it fast, and we have quite a bit of practice time here before next week. We’ll just keep trying to improve the car and try things out to be ready for qualifying this weekend.”

Practice for the 102nd Indy 500 continues on Wednesday.

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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: