Battle for final three Indy 500 spots could be a long waiting game

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INDIANAPOLIS – For the six drivers still seeking a spot in the 103rd Indianapolis 500, an extremely long week is about to transition into an even more nerve-wracking Sunday afternoon.

And the waiting game might be just beginning for Fernando Alonso, James Hinchcliffe, Sage Karam, Max Chilton, Pato O’Ward and Kyle Kaiser.

With a sketchy weather forecast hanging over Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar officials informed teams Saturday morning that the battle to make the last row of the race – three spots to be settled among six drivers – will be held regardless of whether rain washes out Sunday. That means the Last Row battle could take place Monday, if necessary (the Fast Nine and pole position would be set by Saturday’s speeds in the event of a Sunday cancellation).

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All six are involved in an uphill struggle to make the race. Alonso, Hinchcliffe, O’Ward and Kaiser are in backup cars after crashing during the past four days of practice and qualifying, and Karam and Chilton have been fighting handling problems all week.

The biggest surprises are Alonso, the two-time Formula One champion who made an impressive Indy 500 debut in 2017, and Hinchcliffe, the popular Canadian who was on the 2016 Indy 500 pole position.

Practice for the Last Row Shootout drivers begins at 10:15 a.m. ET, followed by a one-hour session starting at 12:15 p.m. on the 2.5-mile oval.

After being bumped from a guaranteed top 30 spot in the final 10 minutes Saturday, Alonso struck a philosophical tone about having one more shot.

“We’ll try to do these four laps clean, no mistakes, try to be flat all four, and then if it’s enough to be in the top three of the six, we’ll take it, and we will try to do a good race,” Alonso said. “If it’s not enough and we are fourth of six, it’s what we deserve. There were maybe three cars quicker than us. So nothing we can do more than that. Try to execute the runs (Sunday) the best we can, and same thing with did today, stay calm, stay focused, and yeah, try to do a good job.”

While it’s been a long slog for Alonso, who crashed Wednesday, didn’t get on track Thursday and then has lacked speed the past two days in his backup, Hinchcliffe seemed to be sailing along before disaster struck Saturday on his second qualifying lap in Turn 2.

The Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team scored a moral victory by getting his backup No. 5 Dallara-Honda on track in less than three hours, but his two attempts weren’t fast enough in a car that is tailored for road courses.

“It doesn’t have the love on it that ovals and superspeedway cars have,” Hinchcliffe said. “We made some changes, had some speed, but obviously, it wasn’t enough. I have a lot of faith in the crew. We just have to put our heads together and come out tomorrow and put it in the show. … There are tricks of the trade to find some speed.”

It was the latest cruel twist at Indy for Hinchcliffe, who wryly noted that Saturday at least “isn’t the worst qualifying day we’ve had here.”

Karam probably couldn’t say the same after fruitlessly searching for speed over more than six hours and scraping the wall on his first attempt. But the Dreyer & Reinbold driver, whose teammate J.R. Hildebrand was 21st fastest, struck a more optimistic tone than Friday.

“I’m not discouraged at all,” Karam said after his first attempt. “The car is still really, really fast. I’m not worried. We’re just going to have to make some adjustments. It’s all about getting in right now.”

Carlin Racing teammates Chilton and O’Ward will be trying to match the pace that teammate Charlie Kimball (20th) had. Kaiser is trying to write a Cinderella story for Juncos Racing after the team lost a sponsor earlier this week.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).