Hinchcliffe makes most of ‘mulligan’ in Indy 500 qualifications

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INDIANAPOLIS – When INDYCAR President Jay Frye added a “Last Row Shootout” to Indianapolis 500 qualifications, it was designed to give teams and drivers that had bad luck on Saturday an extra chance to make good.

In golf, it’s called, a “Mulligan.”

At the Indianapolis 500, it should have been named the “Hinchcliffe Rule.”

Last year, Hinchcliffe picked the wrong day to have a bad day in Indy 500 qualifications. He was bumped out of the field by Conor Daly but remained confident he could easily get back into the race with another qualification attempt. But when he went out, his car suffered a bad vibration that brought him back to the pits.

The issue was corrected, Hinchcliffe got back in the tech line, but the qualification time ended before he got a chance to make another attempt as Pippa Mann was still on track when the gun sounded to end qualifications.

The most popular driver in the NTT IndyCar Series was left out of the starting lineup and he vowed that would never happen again.

But it did.

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During his first qualification attempt on Saturday, Hinchcliffe’s car slammed into the Turn 2 wall on the second lap of his four-lap attempt. The Arrow Honda was damaged, and the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew quickly prepared the backup.

Hinchcliffe made a few attempts late in the day but could not get the car up to speed to make the top 30. That put him in a group of six drivers vying for the final three positions in the 33-car starting lineup in Sunday’s “Last Row Shootout.”

Rain delayed the schedule 12:15 p.m. Shootout to 4:30 p.m. Hinchcliffe was the first of the six drivers to make an attempt and his four-lap average was 227.543 miles per hour.

He had to wait to see if three of the five remaining drivers could top that speed. The only driver out of that group that went faster was Sage Karam, who qualified at 227.740 mph over four laps.

When Kyle Kaiser was the last of the six drivers to make an attempt, he bumped Fernando Alonso from the field and Hinchcliffe had made the race.

He will start 32ndin Sunday’s 103rdIndianapolis 500.

INDYCAR Photo“I just want to say congrats to the other guys that made it in and comprised the last row,” Hinchcliffe said. “And just my heart goes out to the ones that didn’t make it, to Max (Chilton), Pato (O’Ward) and Fernando (Alonso). We all know how much goes into this race and how much this means to everybody, and I’ve been on the other side of this a year ago, so I know how much it sucks. I hate that we have to send guys home today.

“When I got out of the Med Center, I told everybody there’s no way we’re getting back on track yesterday. It just shows what I know. Everybody on Arrow Schmidt Peterson rolled up their sleeves and went to work, and we had the backup car out on track two and a half hours later, which is just incredible.

“It’s a road course car, it wasn’t really built for speedways, it didn’t have all the trick bits on it. But being able to get out there with enough time left to do three runs gave us a lot of information, a lot of data that we could kind of look at overnight and spend long nights working on the car trying to make sure we had the speed today, and man, it’s a nerve-racking feeling knowing that you only have one shot to get it done at this point, and with the weather moving in and being first, that was the same thing that happened to us last year, which was certainly not lost on anybody in the garage.

“Ultimately everybody at Arrow Schmidt Peterson, we took some parts off Marcus Ericsson’s car, everybody from Honda that pitched in to get us in there, man, it’s crazy. It’s way more dramatic.

“I’m getting too old for this stuff. I need a week off now, but we’ve got to be back in the cars tomorrow.”

Hinchcliffe’s situation is perfect proof at why Frye’s idea to give teams and drivers that had trouble on Saturday, one last chance to make the 33-car starting lineup, was a great idea.

“I liked it (the format) before, but I really like it now,” Hinchcliffe said. “What happened to us was weird. In a lot of ways what happened to us last year was part of the reason that rule was created and what happened to us this year is exactly the kind of situation that benefits from it.

“We got a car back on track yesterday, and had it been the old rules, we would have had three more chances and we just would not have got in. We’d be sitting here 365 days later in the same seat we were a year prior, which would have been just devastating.

“For me I think it’s great. It does add a little bit of drama. I think as long as we have enough cars to make it a cool session, which today we did, and — I mean, it was close.

“Good job, man, that was crazy. I was nervous. But yeah, no, I think it’s a cool thing. Hopefully the fans enjoyed it, and it kind of made today a little extra special for everybody.”

After getting a “Mulligan” after Saturday’s crash, Hinchcliffe delivered on Sunday by hitting it, “straight down the fairway.”

Rossi remains “The Story” in INDYCAR in 2019

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly-timed move to race side-by-side with Herta going into Turn 1. By Turn 2 of the first lap of the race, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing missing from deeming Rossi’s race complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pits stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by one-full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished third three of the four times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the frontstraight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle, but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash just as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution. Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816-of-a-second behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he was never challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBC Sports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties like with Honda. Both him and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBC Sports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there, I think we’re getting there,” Andretti said. “We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that. After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500? In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races 10 years from now and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, that is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist. Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”