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‘This is my job’: Gabby Chaves making most of difficult situation

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TORONTO – Gabby Chaves spent the weekend at the Honda Indy Toronto watching someone else do the only job he’s ever wanted — and that he had until a few days ago.

As Conor Daly turned laps in the No. 88 Dallara-Chevrolet, Chaves watched intently with a headset and radioed feedback about its handling. He participated in team debriefs after practice. He chatted and smiled amiably with team members fine-tuning the car in the paddock.

Chaves did everything but climb behind the wheel of the car he drove for the first 11 races of the season – until the difficult conversation Monday in which Harding Racing team president Brian Barnhart informed him the team would be evaluating its performance with other drivers.

Five days later, the move still stung.

“Of course, man,” Chaves told NBCSports.com with a smile Saturday after returning from the team’s pit stand. “Of course. And while I understand it, it doesn’t make it any easier to accept, but if I want to grow and want my team to succeed and move forward, I’ve got to play and support the decisions they make.

“If it helps us move forward, we’ve got to do it. … It’s never easy to be on the sidelines and be watching, but this is my job is to be here, so that’s what I’m doing.”

Though it’s Daly in the car this weekend, it’s still Chaves’ face on the side of the team’s transporter, indicative of the fact that he has a contract through the 2019 season that should return him to the car.

The tentative plan is to use various drivers over the final six races of the season to build a framework for expanding to a second car next year (with Chaves returning to his full-time ride).

“It’s not easy,” Barnhart said. “On the other hand, if you walked in and told your driver, ‘Hey, I’m going to sit you this weekend because we’re going to go a different direction and get different feedback,’ if the guy goes, “Oh, OK, that’s fine,” you don’t want that guy anyway.

“He was pissed, and that’s exactly the way you want him to be. He’s fighting every second that car is on the track, he wants to be in it, and that’s the way it should be. After the discussion that it was going to happen, I can’t do anything but compliment Gabby for his professionalism, his class, his dignity in the whole thing.”

Just the scene near the team’s transporter after practice seemed inherently awkward.

Daly, wearing his firesuit, rolled up on a scooter, and the fourth-place finisher in last year’s “Amazing Race” quickly drew a throng of autograph-seekers. Meanwhile, Chaves, who was clad in a team polo, remained unnoticed while sitting at a table off to the side.

There was no trace of bitterness, though, as Chaves, 25, explained that a longtime bond with Daly made the situation easier.

“We’ve been racing together since we were 12 years old together, so we’ve known each other for a long time,” Chaves said. “So that makes it easier to work, of course.

“He’s just a driver just looking for the opportunities, right? I’ve been there before. There is no awkwardness between Conor and myself. We’ve been friends for a long time. We know what it’s like to be out of a ride, in a ride, out of a ride. The best we can do is actually support each other here.”

Daly, who was back in a car for only the second race this season and the first since a 21st in the Indianapolis 500, can appreciate the feeling of being in limbo. He has been sidelined most of 2018 after consecutive full-time seasons in IndyCar and has nothing lined up beyond Toronto.

“This is not an easy game we are playing, and obviously, I appreciate how Gabby’s been through this whole process,” Daly, 26, said. “He’s been awesome. It is what it is. It always sucks to have to be in that situation. I’ve been in that situation before. But yeah, we’ll both keep moving forward.

“What can you do about it? He’s been on the radio every single time. We’ve both been learning together. He’s been communicating while on the pit stand, which is great. It’s a team effort. If he sees this team benefit from this, then it will help him in the long run for sure also.”

There were immediate benefits in qualifying Saturday when Daly took advantage of a session briefly interrupted by rain to qualify 11th, the team’s best starting position since Chaves started eighth in the season opener at St. Petersburg.

Harding, the only one-car team running the full 2018 schedule in the Verizon IndyCar Series, faces an uphill battle of trying to be competitive against multicar teams with more data and funding to optimize their parts and setups. Barnhart said the biggest technology gap is in shock development, estimating bigger teams can spend $500,000 to $1 million annually (Harding doesn’t have a shock program).

At Iowa Speedway, Chaves was instructed by the team to park the car after 99 of 300 laps. Ranked 18th in the points standings with no hope of improving, Barnhart said the team has been focused on 2019 since Chaves finished 14th at Indy, one of three tracks the team ran with him in 2017.

“The transition into a full-season car has been an enormous task for this team because of the different equipment necessary to go road and street and short oval racing,” Barnhart said. “We were ill prepared for the size of that task for the diversity of tracks and to do a full season of racing. We had some stuff to do superspeedway racing, and that’s it. We still don’t have the right components to do short ovals, road courses and street circuits.

“There have been too many times this year we feel we’re taking a knife to a gun fight.”

Barnhart said the feedback at Toronto from Daly, whose style is different than Chaves, “validated” the handling woes and struggles that the team has faced this season.

Chaves also “made some good suggestion contributed as well” to improving the car Saturday, Barnhart said.

“It’s been a good weekend,” Barnhart said. “That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a tough weekend. But it was the right decision, and now we just need to take that information and move forward.”

The next step is a Tuesday test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in which the team is expecting to use both Daly and Chaves to simulate what a two-car setup could resemble next year.

Then after an off week, the team will re-evaluate its driver lineup for Mid-Ohio, Pocono, Gateway, Portland and Sonoma. It likely won’t be Chaves in the car, but the team still expects him to be there.

“All I said to him was I know this is going to be tough and can’t be easy to watch someone else drive your car, but we’d really like for you to be there and participate,” Barnhart said. “But if it’s too difficult emotionally and you can’t do it, I’d understand. He kind of hesitated on it, and he said, ‘I’ll be there.’ It’s just a reflection of what kind of guy he is. It’s the right thing to do, and he did it.”

Chaves plans to attend the final five races just as he did in Toronto.

“Yeah, of course,” he said. “Of course. That’s my job, man.”

IMSA Prototype Season in Review

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IMSA Wire Service

It was a year of change for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The longtime sprint series evolved in 2018 to six one-hour, 45-minute endurance races that allowed teams to run single or two-driver combinations with a required minimum-time pit stop. The result: record-high car counts in the LMP3 class with Kris Wright ultimately winning the series championship for Extreme Speed Motorsports, while Cameron Cassels took home the LMP3 Masters title. In the MPC class, meanwhile, series veteran Jon Brownson won his first championship in the final season for the class with a breakthrough win one week ago in the season finale at Road Atlanta.

This season-in-review takes a look back at the path each of the three champions took on their way to history.

1. Daytona International Speedway, January 6

Winners
LMP3: Roman De Angelis, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Gary Gibson, No. 44 Ave Motorsports Ave-Riley AR2
MPC: Robert Masson, No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Not only was the season-opener during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend the first endurance race for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda, it also was the first race for the series at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Wright, driving the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3 scored his first podium of the season alongside co-driver Daniel Morad with a third-place finish behind Porsche GT3 Challenge driver and winner Roman De Angelis and co-drivers Austin McCusker and David Droux, finishing second for the upstart Forty7 Motorsports team. Masson scored the MPC win, lapping all but one car, while Brownson came home fifth.

2. Sebring International Raceway, March 16

Winners
LMP3: Leo Lamelas / Pato O’Ward, No. 7 Charles Wicht Racing Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: James McGuire Jr., No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Dave House, No. 86 ONE Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The round at Sebring featured a late-race restart that saw eventual 2018 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion O’Ward drive from fourth to first in the closing laps to secure the win for full-time driver Lamelas. Wright, meanwhile, finished third for the second consecutive time to start the season with a new co-driver, Michael Whelden. The No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry again finished second with McCusker now joined by TJ Fischer, who would go on to run the full season with the team. Coming out of Sebring, McCusker would lead Wright by four points, 64-60. Between Sebring and the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, Wright would decide to contest the full season for Extreme Speed Motorsports.

It was a special victory in the MPC class with House becoming IMSA’s oldest race winner at the age of 75. Foreshadowing a points race that what would ultimately come down to the season finale at Road Atlanta, the top five in the MPC standings are separated by two points leaving Sebring, with Brownson seventh, 12 points out, after a ninth-place finish.

3. Barber Motorsports Park, April 21

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Yann Clairay, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Rob Hodes, No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Michal Chlumecky, No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The only standalone event for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda would prove to be the turning point in the LMP3 class. Leading all but one practice session on the weekend and starting the race from the pole, Wright and co-driver Clairay dominated the event, only losing the lead briefly on a cycle of green flag pit stops. Wright’s biggest competition for the championship, meanwhile, the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports team, seemed poised to score its third consecutive runner-up finish of the season to hold onto the LMP3 points lead, but contact between Fischer and an MPC car with five minutes remaining relegated the team to a 16th-place finish. Entering the weekend down four points in the standings, Wright left Barber up six points, 95-89, over Lamelas.

Chlumecky scored his first MPC class win since 2012, while teammate Brownson, the Sebring pole winner, capped off a Eurosport Racing 1-2 finish placing second in the team’s No. 34 entry. Masson rounded out the podium with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02 to regain the class lead. Brownson left Barber eight points behind Masson, fifth in the standings.

4. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, July 8

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The long overdue first victory for Forty7 Motorsports finally came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for McCusker and Fischer, but a second-place finish for Wright meant McCusker could only gain three points on the series leader, with Wright keeping the deficit at 13 points. Dean Baker would score the LMP3 Masters win, the fourth winner in four races following Gibson at Daytona, McGuire Jr. at Sebring and Hodes at Barber. Cassels finished on the LMP3 Masters podium for the first time in 2018 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, finishing the race seventh overall and third in LMP3 Masters.

Leading the MPC standings coming into Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Robert Masson enlisted son and defending series champion Kyle Masson as a co-driver for the remainder of the season. The plan appeared to work with the duo crossing the line first, but upon post-race analysis of drive-time requirements, it was concluded that Kyle Masson did not record the minimum 40 minutes of drive time and the car was moved to the back of the MPC results. That penalty elevated Jacobs and French to the race win in Performance Tech’s No. 77 entry and moved Brownson, who finished second for the consecutive race, to the class championship lead. Coming out of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the top six in points were separated by just two points with two races remaining.

5. VIRginia International Raceway, August 18

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Stephen Simpson, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Wright enlisted IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regular Stephen Simpson as co-driver at VIR and delivered a knockout punch in the LMP3 title fight, scoring the win and opening a 23-point lead over McCusker, who finished sixth. Baker would win his second consecutive race in LMP3 Masters with a second-place finish overall alongside Zacharie Robichon. Hodes would lead the LMP3 Masters points by two points over Jim Garrett, eight points over Cassels and nine points over Joel Janco.

Robert Masson seemed poised to take the points lead and win alongside Kyle Masson as the duo drove brilliantly in the rain, building a nearly one-lap lead. A mechanical issue with 17 minutes remaining, however, set up a late-race sprint to the finish with French winning on the last lap for Jacobs.

With only one race remaining, House moved into the class lead by three points, 143-140, over Jacobs. The top seven teams were mathematically eligible for the championship and separated by a mere eight points.

6. Road Atlanta, October 12

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Cameron Cassels, No. 75 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Jon Brownson, No. 34 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The second win of the season for the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry and co-driver McCusker and Fischer was not enough to take the championship away from Wright, who finished second at Road Atlanta to sweep podiums in all six races on the series schedule.

Cassels scored his first LMP3 Masters win of the season, and despite entering the weekend eight points behind in the standings, would also win the LMP3 Masters championship after each of the title contenders ran into various issues on-track.

Brownson called it an “honor” to win the final race for the MPC class. Brownson, who started in the first race for the series in 2006, scored his first win of the season in the No. 34 Eurosport Racing entry to win the final championship for the class.