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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Cadillac confirms WEC driver lineup with Chip Ganassi Racing that will race Le Mans in 2023

Cadillac Ganassi Le Mans
Cadillac Racing
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Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing announced their driver lineup for a 2023 entry in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the sports car series that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Cadillac V-LMDh entry will be driven by Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn, who were teamed on the No. 02 Cadillac that competed in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi class this season and won the Twelve Hours of Sebring. The third driver will be Richard Westbrook, who will return to Ganassi after helping the team to a GT class win at Le Mans in 2018.

The team also will compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the rebranded Grand Touring Prototype premier category, which is designed for crossover between the top prototypes in IMSA and WEC. Ganassi will field a second entry at Daytona with its No. 01 Cadillac that will compete full time in IMSA with Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande.

A Ganassi spokesman said the team hopes to run its second entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans but only its WEC team is confirmed (an AOC invitation would be required for the IMSA team). The team also is exploring options but currently plans to have the WEC’s team base of operations in Indianapolis.

Ganassi is the first American-based prototype team to confirm its entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s expected that Team Penske, which raced this year’s Le Mans with a full-time WEC entry in LMP2, also will race Le Mans with Porsche’s new LMDh car that is set for IMSA, but the manufacturer has yet to confirm its driver and team lineup.

Next year will mark the return of Cadillac to Le Mans for the first time since 2002.

Before joining Ganassi last year, Lynn made 28 WEC starts since 2016, winning the LMGTE Pro class at Le Mans in 2020.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to continue with Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing,” Lynn said in a release. “It’s a huge honor to drive for Chip in any capacity but certainly on a full factory sports car program, it’s seriously cool. Cadillac has so much heritage as a luxury North American sports car brand, so to be able to represent them is a huge privilege. I’ve had a lot of fun in my first year doing it and to continue that onto the World Endurance Championship stage is fantastic.

“For me, returning to WEC is sort of what I’ve always known and it’s a bit like going into my wheelhouse. This year in IMSA was a bit different with getting to know all-new circuits and a new style of racing so 2023 will be filled with a bit more of what I’m used to with more of a European focus. I think what’s significant about WEC is without a doubt Le Mans. As a sports car race, Le Mans is the crown jewel and everything that we want to win. To be able to take Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac back to Le Mans to fight for overall honors is a huge honor and that’s something that I’m going to work tirelessly to make sure we achieve.”

Bamber won the Le Mans overall in 2015 and ’17 with Porsche teams and also was a 2019 GTLM champion in IMSA.

“I am really happy to continue at Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac,” Bamber said in a release. “I’ve loved my first season in DPi and now to continue over into the LMDh era and WEC is super exciting. Looking forward to fighting for a world championship and another Le Mans victory.

“The World Endurance Championships gives us the opportunity to race at the world’s biggest race, which is Le Mans, the crown jewel of sports car racing. I’ve been lucky enough to win it before and it’s obviously a huge goal for Cadillac and everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing. To have that goal in sight is really exciting. It’s been great to have Alex as a teammate in 2022. We’ve been able to learn and grow together in the DPi, and we have a really good partnership going into WEC. We know each other really well and believe adding Richard will be a seamless transition.”

Said Westbrook: “After four really good years at Chip Ganassi Racing, I’ve got so many friends there and I’ve always dreamt to come back one day. It just worked so well between 2016 and 2019, and I’m delighted we found a route to come together again. I can’t wait, it’s an exciting era in sports car racing right now.

“I feel like I know Alex and Earl really well. I did Le Mans with Alex in 2020 and I’ve known him for years. It feels like I’m going back with an ex-teammate and exactly the same with Earl. Although I’ve never shared a car with Earl, we’ve always done the same sort of racing be it in WEC or in IMSA. We’ve had lots of battles, including this year in our dueling Cadillacs. We’ve always gotten along quite well, and I can say we’re going to have a great year together.”

The seven-race WEC season, which also includes a stop at Spa, will begin March 17 with the 1,000 Miles of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.