Column: The sooner Fernando Alonso (hopefully) comes to IndyCar, the better

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Following Fernando Alonso’s announcement Tuesday that he will retire from Formula One racing at the end of the current season, ongoing speculation about his potentially racing in the IndyCar Series in 2019 immediately increased exponentially.

But will he?

There’s no question that the entire IndyCar community would welcome the Spanish two-time F1 champ with open arms.

There’s also no question that Alonso has unfinished business in the series after almost winning the 2017 Indianapolis 500 before being beset by mechanical problems late in the race.

After winning at Le Mans in June, capturing the second part of the three-legged triple crown of motorsports, Alonso has said countless times since then that winning Indy is on his bucket list, to become only the second driver in history (Graham Hill was the first) to win Monaco, Le Mans and Indy.

But as much as millions of race fans would love to see Alonso come to the Verizon IndyCar Series full-time in 2019, he has other options that he may pursue first.

MORE: Fernando Alonso to retire from F1 at season’s end; could IndyCar be next?

I do think he’ll be at Indy again (perhaps in another one-off start in the 2019 Greatest Spectacle In Racing). But given the turmoil at McLaren, which needs to get its F1 house right first before it moves to IndyCar, I suspect Alonso may hold off on coming to IndyCar full-time until 2020.

There’s several reasons:

  1. He has great loyalty to McLaren. Even though he’s retiring from driving for them in F1, he’s been front and center about wanting to drive in IndyCar for them as well, not necessarily driving for another existing team.
  2. McLaren will likely not come to IndyCar full-time until 2020. That gives Alonso the opportunity to do a number of different things behind the wheel in 2019 that perhaps he’s always wanted to. In addition to racing at Indy, it’s a good likelihood we’ll see him once again at the Rolex 24 Hours in Daytona, competing in the World Endurance Championship, and maybe even doing some go-karting (his other racing love). Heck, even NASCAR tweeted (below) today that they’d love to see him at the Daytona 500 – and win it, as well.
  3. Sure, Alonso would be nearly two years older by the time McLaren would potentially come to IndyCar full-time in 2020, but the afore-mentioned loyalty and familiarity with the organization – even with its struggles in recent years – could prompt Alonso to be willing to stay at the altar for as long as necessary until the McLaren marriage to IndyCar is finalized.

On the flip side, Alonso still could come to IndyCar full-time next season and do so with any number of teams. First would be Andretti Autosport, for whom he raced at Indy last year. The question is whether they could add a fifth team that would have adequate sponsorship to run Alonso.

Second, Rahal Letterman Lanigan has expressed interest in Alonso joining the fold with Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Again, sponsorship would be a significant element.

Third, Scott Dixon is a longtime friend of Alonso. Countless media reports and rumors over the last several months linked Dixon and Alonso together in any number of scenarios, including the pair racing in F1 for McLaren, or racing together in IndyCar for McLaren (most likely in partnership with another team such as Andretti Autosport).

Now that Dixon is signed, sealed and delivered to stay at Chip Ganassi Racing for the next few years, there’s the potential of Alonso still hooking up with Dixon, albeit with CGR instead of a McLaren IndyCar effort.

More than anything, Alonso would be good for the sport any way you slice it. It would give IndyCar greatly increased notoriety worldwide. Remember “Fernando-mania” and “Alonso-mania” and how much attention was focused on him and IndyCar in May 2017? If Alonso becomes a full-time IndyCar driver, that same kind of attention and notoriety would once again become a global entity multiplied by 17 or 18 races in a season.

You can’t buy that kind of worldwide attention.

Mark Miles, President and CEO of Hulman & Company, which owns INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is among those who hope Alonso is in the IndyCar fold in 2019.

“Today’s announcement certainly has fueled excitement among INDYCAR fans who hope that Alonso will compete throughout the championship in 2019,” Miles said in a statement. “McLaren is working to put all the necessary arrangements in place, and we are supporting their efforts. I don’t expect this to be resolved until closer to the end of this year.”

During a Tuesday afternoon media conference call, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was one of Alonso’s teammates with Andretti Autosport in the 2017 500, praised the possibility of Alonso coming to IndyCar full-time.

“That would be great, absolutely,” Hunter-Reay said. “I’ve been saying it for a while, this series is the most competitive series in the world, no doubt. You cannot name who is going to win each race. There are no favorites. There’s a long list of winners even from this year. You have a really tight championship.

“It would be appealing to me, if I were him. I spent time with him as his teammate. He’s as hungry as ever to win. I think IndyCar is a great spot. IndyCar stock continues to rise for that reason.”

Even though his personal statistics over the last several years have been dismal – his last win was in 2013 and his last podium finish was in 2014 – it’s because McLaren hasn’t given him competitive equipment. Even the organization’s top officials admit it.

But Alonso is nowhere near done as a driver. Having just turned 37 three weeks ago (July 29), Alonso could be an immediate hit on the IndyCar circuit, both competitively as well as for the attention he’d draw.

Let’s face it, it’s no secret that Formula One and NASCAR are hurting in both at-track attendance and TV ratings. IndyCar, on the other hand, is on the upswing in pretty much every measurable category.

IndyCar is hot – and Alonso coming onboard would only make it hotter and more appealing to open-wheel racing fans not just in the U.S. and the rest of North America, but globally, as well.

Alonso could also be the linchpin to potentially seeing IndyCar once again racing overseas, perhaps in England or Germany or even his native country of Spain.

And let’s not forget the potential of Australia, Brazil, Japan and Colombia, among other countries that would likely welcome IndyCar to (or back to) their native lands.

Alonso has the potential to go from a reputation as a former two-time F1 champion to the most important person in IndyCar – and in very short order.

And also let’s not forget a potential future IndyCar champion at least once, but potentially two or three times.

Honestly, if Alonso does come to the series, I can’t wait to see him go head-to-head and wheel-to-wheel with guys like four-time series champion Scott Dixon, defending series champ Josef Newgarden, reigning Indy 500 winner Will Power and so many more on a race-to-race basis.

Simply put, Alonso coming to IndyCar would be a win-win for everyone: the series, opposing teams, NBC and most importantly, race fans. For F1, meh, maybe not so much.

Singlehandedly, he could help transform the series into what open-wheel racing was like and how popular it was back in its hey days of the 1980s and into the 1990s.

We’re ready for @Alo_Oficial. The welcome mat is on the ground and the door is wide open. It’s just a matter of him stepping forward.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.