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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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After thrilling ‘Evel Live,’ Travis Pastrana back in action this weekend

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It’s been 2 ½ months since Travis Pastrana channeled his inner Evel Knievel in “Evel Live” in Las Vegas on July 8.

The legendary motorcycle stunt rider and rallycross driver successfully replicated three of Knievel’s most infamous career motorcycle jumps, capped off by jumping – some would call it flying – over the fountain at Caesar’s Palace.

All without a scratch or any type of malfunction.

“It was awesome,” Pastrana told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk in an exclusive interview. “Obviously, to do something live, a live stunt which hasn’t been done, is cool.

“And just the nostalgia, to live a day in Evel Knievel’s boots, literally, was awesome. To have the whole Knievel family out there, his three kids, and my mom and dad all out there, it was just a real awesome day.

“And to have the chance to jump the Caeser’s (Palace) fountain, probably the most infamous and iconic stunt location in the world. All that added up to be a really, really great event and I think it came off really well.”

MORE: Travis Pastrana successfully completes all three of Evel Knievel’s most famous jumps

MORE: Travis Pastrana’s goal to replicate 3 of Evel Knievel’s most famous jumps: ‘Try not to die’

LAS VEGAS, NV – JULY 08: Travis Pastrana peforms during HISTORY’s Live Event “Evel Live” on July 8, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for HISTORY)

Pastrana spoke at length about the logistics of setting up the three jumps in two different venues, getting from Point A in one part of Las Vegas to Point B (Caesar’s), and dealing with potential weather concerns.

“That’s the greatest part about Nitro Circus (Pastrana’s company) is having an amazing team so that when an idea like this comes up, we can make it turn into fruition and a possibility,” Pastrana said. “The idea came up less than a year before it was pulled off.

“I couldn’t have been more proud of my team and all the guys there. When we called Caesar’s, we thought for sure they were going to say no. Then they said yes.

“Then we talked to the Knievel family and they said, ‘this is going to be great. Go ahead.’ It was like, be careful for what you ask for because it just happened. And then we had a bike just like Evel’s, although a more modern day (version).”

While Pastrana and his team pulled off everything seamlessly, there was a lot of worry and concern, especially on Pastrana’s part, since he was the focal point of the stunt, which was televised live.

“I didn’t sleep at all the night before,” he said. “And then everything just worked out. It’s what you hope for, for sure. But with every race, every event, everything, there’s always something like a $5 part break in a half-million dollar vehicle. Something always goes wrong.

“The fact that everything went as well as it could – I mean, they were calling for 80 percent chance of rain with wind gusts up to 60 mph (on the day of the event).

“And the storm kind of went 20 miles south, it didn’t get that windy, and you have to think to yourself, ‘Man, that was a live event, and representing Evel Knievel, the stunt man of Vegas, you’ve gotta go for it.’”

Pastrana vowed to perform the stunts rain or shine. But if it had rained, he had his doubts that he’d be able to pull it off.

“Successfully, probably not,” the 34-year-old Pastrana said with a laugh. “That was the thing, what I had said coming up to it.

“When Evel got to Wembley Stadium (to do his infamous 13-bus jump in 1975), he said, ‘Look, the busses are bigger than they are in the U.S., I miscalculated the distance, this bike is not going to go as fast as I thought it would go. I’m not going to make it, but I told you guys I was going to put on a show, and I’m going to deliver.’

“That’s why I wanted to be the guy on this particular stunt. I can’t tell someone else when there are bad conditions or the bike is overheating or something else is going wrong to go, but with Nitro Circus and our history, and his family there, it just has to go, no matter what happens. We were just real fortunate and lucky that it all worked out.”

Pastrana jumped the fountain at Caesars Palace to wrap up a night of replicating three of Evel Knievels most infamous career jumps. Photo: Getty Images.

While he certainly enjoyed doing them, the Annapolis, Maryland native said it’s unlikely he’ll have any more Evel-like jumps in his career.

“This was a perfect storm,” he said. “Everything was just lined up on this one. For me, that was not my last hurrah, if you will, but as far as doing a big stunt, I did my biggest stunt I’ve ever done last year with the double back-flip 360 and kind of realized, you know what, I’ve been lucky long enough, let me just focus on my family.

“But then this came up, and I was like, ‘Put me in, coach.’”

Pastrana returns to the track this Saturday and Sunday for the third annual Nitro World Games at the Utah Motorsports Campus (formerly known as Miller Motorsports Park) near Salt Lake City.

Saturday will feature Nitro Rallycross (NRX) Qualifiers and Heat Races, including some of the biggest names in the sport including Pastrana and rival Ken Block having some “unfinished business,” as well as Scott Speed, Tanner Foust, Patrik Sandell, Steve Arpin, Mattias Ekstrom, Chris Atkinson and Timmy Hansen.

Pastrana and Ken Block have some ‘unfinished business’ in this weekend’s Nitro World Games near Salt Lake City. Photo: Nitro Circus.

On Sunday, the action includes the FMX Best Trick Finals, NRX Semi-Finals and Finals and FMX Quarterpipe Finals.

Among FMX Quarterpipe competitors are Colby Raha, Jarryd McNeil, Axell Hodges, Elijah Aldoff, Corey Creed and Kohl Denney.

And among riders and drivers taking part in the Best Trick Finals are defending champ Harry Bink, along with Pat Bowden, Christian Meyer, Josh Sheehan, William Van den Putte, Blake Williams, and Davi Johnson.

“Having the opportunity to kind of reinvent the sport for the American audience and for the drivers – I mean, we have Talladega-sized berms – right and left turns, dirt and pavement, huge jumps, there’s a triple-crossover,” Pastrana said. “World Games is basically the bigger of international sports. We take the most exciting sports, the biggest air, the least technical … and try to make it even bigger.

“I couldn’t be more excited. I think it’s going to be real exciting for the drivers, lots of options. It’s not a track that’s just built for a one-off event, it’s going to be a permanent place here so people can come out here and practice and keep getting better like European tracks do. So it should be good.”

Pastrana said Nitro Circus does over 70 live shows around the world per year, but he’s also excited about preparing for a lengthy residency in Las Vegas beginning next March.

Given all the things he’s accomplished over his career, Pastrana was asked if there’s anything remaining on his bucket list that he still hopes to do.

“I love racing, I love competing and I feel like I’ve competed in almost everything all over the world,” he said. “But the Daytona 500 is something … and I’ve never done a drag race. So those two would be pretty cool, wouldn’t they?”

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