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Underdogs and one-offs aim for Indy 500 glory

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Every year, a few obvious choices jump out on the list of favorites to win the Indianapolis 500. Such choices include Team Penske, Andretti Autosport, and Chip Ganassi Racing, especially in recent years.

Since 2000, only three times has the winner come from a team that wasn’t a part of the Penske, Andretti, or Ganassi stables – 2004 (Buddy Rice, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), 2011 (Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta Autosport), and 2013 (Tony Kanaan, KV Racing Technology).

And even one-off efforts from Helio Castroneves (Penske), Ed Jones (Ganassi), Carlos Munoz (Andretti), and Stefan Wilson (Andretti) are stout in their own rights.

Castroneves qualified eighth and is most certainly one of the favorites for the win on Sunday. Ed Jones, despite qualifying 29th, represents quite the darkhorse after a strong run to third last year. And the same could be said of Munoz, who has finished second in this race twice.

Even Wilson, in his first IndyCar race since the 2016 Indy 500, could make some noise on race day after running solidly all through practice.

That said, while the Penskes, Andrettis, and Ganassis of the world are still the favorites, there are plenty of underdogs who could challenge them.

Leading that pack is Ed Carpenter Racing. It seems hard to believe that a team that put a driver on the pole and two others in the top nine in qualifying would be an underdog of sorts, but ECR would certainly fall into that category.

Despite regularly qualifying well, the races historically haven’t. Outside of 2016, when Josef Newgarden and JR Hildebrand finished third and sixth for the team, the organization only has four other top 10s in total, and no other top fives.

Indeed, that is something the team will want to change, and this may be the year it happens. Team owner Ed Carpenter starts on the pole, with Spencer Pigot in sixth and Danica Patrick in seventh.

In as much, Carpenter himself feels very bolstered in knowing that the team is so well-prepared heading into Sunday’s race, and he acknowledged the team’s herculean effort to make all three ECR Chevrolets so stout.

Ed Carpenter celebrates winning the Indy 500 pole. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m super proud of the team. It’s one thing to build a fast car here. It’s a whole ‘nother to build three fast cars, especially one of them not being a full-time crew,” he revealed in his post-qualifying press conference. “So the effort that (general manager Tim Broyles) and the whole team put together to have everybody prepared and giving myself, Spencer, Danica all really good cars and equal chances to be in the Fast Nine and go compete for a pole, that’s all you can ask for as a driver and as a team owner.”

And Danica Patrick, despite driving a one-off entry after not driving in IndyCar since 2011, has looked quite impressive, steadily getting quicker during practice and qualifying an impressive seventh.

Danica Patrick is focused on ending her racing career with an Indy 500 win. Photo: IndyCar

Her finishing record at Indy is also strong, with finishes of fourth, eighth, eighth, third, sixth, and tenth (2008 is the only year in which she DNF’ed, finishing 22nd after contact with Ryan Briscoe in pit lane).

A victory seems almost a little too far-fetched, given the fairy-tale ending it would give her career, but it certainly is not impossible.

Rest assured though, if a team is to knock off one of the “Big Three,” it could be someone from the Carpenter outfit.

Another full-time IndyCar effort that could play the underdog role is A.J. Foyt Racing. Though they have struggled to find success for over a decade, full-time drivers Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist have been fast all month, and qualified an impressive 10th and 11th respectively.

On the driver front, a Kanaan victory wouldn’t be too big of a shock, but when combined with the struggles of the Foyt team, a Kanaan triumph would most certainly send shockwaves through the paddock.

And a Leist victory seems highly unlikely, although stranger things have happened – for example, JR Hildebrand infamously nearly won this race as a rookie in 2011.

In short, either of Foyt’s cars could have a say in who wins on Sunday.

One other full-time entrant to watch in the role of the underdog is the No. 88 Chevrolet of Harding Racing. In the hands of Gabby Chaves, this is a team just quietly goes about their business and stays out of trouble.

It’s a sound strategy given the team’s relative inexperience – the team was only formed last year – but it has already paid dividends.

Chaves and the Harding outfit survived a chaotic 2017 Indy 500 to finish an impressive ninth on the team’s debut, and their second race – at Texas Motor Speedway – saw them evade similar chaos to finish fifth, their first top five.

For Chaves, if the team can keep things clean and improve the car as the race goes, they’ll have a chance for at least another solid result, if not more.

“We just need to keep improving (the car) and keep working forward,” he said after qualifying. “The car has been pretty competitive all month and so that’s the important thing, so we just need to take it from there.”

Yet more underdog prospects emerge in analyzing the one-off entries, and maybe the most likely competitor from this group is Dreyer and Reinbold Racing.

In Sage Karam and JR Hildebrand, the DRR stable has a pair of hungry drivers eager to prove themselves to reignite their IndyCar careers.

Sage Karam has historically been very quick around Indianapolis. photo: IndyCar

Karam in particular could be a big darkhorse. The 23-year-old has demonstrated an inclination for going fast around Indianapolis, particularly on race day. He charged from 31st to ninth in 2014, and came from 23rd to run as high as sixth in 2016 before crashing out just shy of the halfway point.

With the rock-solid JR Hildebrand in the mix as well – Hildebrand has four top 10s, including his infamous second-place in 2011 – this is a potent driver combo.

Combine all of that with DRR’s desire to become a full-time IndyCar team again, and you have an operation that has motivation in spades.

Qualifying did not go quite as well as they hoped – Karam lines up 25th and Hildebrand in 27th – but as Karam described after this past Monday’s practice, the race cars may be pretty sporty.

“I think the car is pretty good. We always have a really good race car. I was able to make some passes, run with the fast guys that were fast in qualifying. I ran with them pretty steadily, ran some good laps,” Karam explained.

One-off entries, like those from the Dreyer and Reinbold camp, don’t usually end up in Victory Lane, but one did make it happen 2011, with Wheldon and Bryan Herta Autosport. And if there’s a one-off team that could pull off a big upset, Dreyer and Reinbold may fit the bill.

Notable one-off performances from past Indy 500s include Kurt Busch (Andretti) in 2014 (he finished sixth as part of the Indy 500/Coca Cola 600 double), Carlos Munoz (Andretti) and AJ Allmendinger (Penske) in 2013 (they finished second and seventh), Scott Goodyear (Tasman Motorsports) in 1995 (he finished 14th, but was leading when he jumped a restart with 11 laps remaining), and Al Unser Sr. (Penske) in 1987 (he filled in for an injured Danny Ongais after beginning the Month of May without a ride).

In all, while teams like Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti might be the heavyweights and the favorites, there are plenty of underdogs and one-off efforts that appear very capable of challenging them.

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Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”