Why Charlie Kimball could win the Indy 500

He’s been accused of driving as if wearing horse-blinders. He’s been accused of being a pay driver who doesn’t deserve one of the best seats in motorsport. Yet Charlie Kimball is a genuine contender for Indy 500 victory, says David Malsher.

Why Charlie Kimball could win the Indy 500
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda pit stop
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda chats with teammate Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda ,Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet, Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, crash

After the first couple of races this season, mentioning Charlie Kimball’s name in the IndyCar paddock was something that could provoke either a roll of the eyes, a smirk or a cuss word.

He had been involved in four accidents in as many races – separate incidents with Graham Rahal and Will Power in the penultimate round of the 2016 season, Watkins Glen, then with Rahal again in St. Pete this year, and with Power again in Long Beach.

Few would say that the driver of the #83 Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda was 100 percent to blame in all of them, but nor could the common thread between them be ignored.

One of Charlie’s problems is that, to be blunt, he ain’t no Scott Dixon. When a super-talent has a series of shunts, he’s given a bye. But Kimball is 32 now, has one IndyCar victory to his name (a very good one, admittedly), and if he sticks in the series until he’s 40, he may score three or four more wins.

One rumor has it that this will be the final season Kimball spends at Chip Ganassi Racing, but of course that could all turn on a dime this weekend, because it would be very hard for a team to ditch its Indy winner. Roger Penske let Tom Sneva go in ’78 immediately after he scored the team two consecutive Indy car series championships, but in general, such moves are rare among the top teams.

Now consider this: Kimball has always been strong at the Speedway, resulting in third and fifth the last two years. He’s qualified almost precisely mid-grid at for this year’s 500. And, if those aforementioned rumors are to be believed – and both of this writer’s sources are reliable – then Charlie will be aware this could be his last top chance to win the biggest race in the world.

Can you imagine the motivation in the man to get the job done on Sunday? Sure, you can believe the increasingly tiresome mantra that ‘the Speedway picks its winner,’ but Kimball is definitely a driver who likes to take his destiny into his own hands and his winning the ultimate prize in motorsports is by no means an outlandish idea.

What’s been unfortunate about his recent incidents is that they’ve overshadowed the progress Kimball has made on most types of track. Although there have been seasons when Kimball has reached a plateau, 2017 is definitely one where he’s been climbing nearer the pinnacle once more.

Progress was somewhat slowed when, not long into the season, Ganassi swapped race engineers between Tony Kanaan and Kimball, so that Eric Cowdin now works with TK, and Todd Malloy engineers Kimball’s #83 car. But Charlie has high hopes that once they have overcome their unfamiliarity with each other’s methods, he and Todd can move onward and upward.

“That relationship [with Malloy] is definitely still developing,” Kimball tells Motorsport.com. “The great thing about the format of Indy is that it’s given us more time to develop and learn each other. Both Todd and Eric [Cowdin] are exceptional, but different people, and I think it’s been more challenging for me and Todd because we’ve not worked with each other; Tony has worked with Eric in the past.

“By the time we get to race weekend, Todd and I will have had more than triple our previous time to get used to each other, we will have grown together in terms of dialect and communication.

“The great news is that the car and the team have been really impressive this year,” he adds. “We had a problem in St. Pete with a tire going flat and we still qualified ninth. In Long Beach we qualified seventh, missing the Firestone Fast Six only by 0.0084 – not that I’m counting! – and that’s by far my best street circuit qualifying effort and it’s proving to me the #83 team is working really well together.

“But I’d actually say Chip Ganassi Racing team as a whole has adapted really well and very quickly to the Honda engine and aerokit. We’ve learned a lot about both in a short amount of time.

“At the end of the day, we can’t change the cards we’re dealt; we just need to figure out how to play them. And there may be days where we’re not competitive, not because of some fundamental flaw in the aerokit, but because we’ve gone down a wrong path as a team because there are so many permutations in this kit.

“But Chip Ganassi Racing’s history shows they don’t have many of those days because of the sheer depth of engineering knowledge. So it’s frustrating to me that we on the #83 team haven’t been able to show what we’re capable of in terms of results.”

Kimball sees little point in going into the specifics of the incidents that blighted the end of his 2016 season and the start of 2017.

“We can’t go back and change anything,” he says. “I’ve made my feelings clear after the races, and I’ve discussed it with race stewards and they put it down to racing incidents. While I disagree a little bit with them, they are the referees of our sport and their opinion is the most important in terms of how the rules are applied.

“I’m happy to have a private discussion with any other driver about my thought process and how my decision-making came about, and I’m always happy to participate in rational dialogue to see if there’s common ground. We’re racing drivers, we’re competitive, but we can still have discussions and work towards common ground. If we can’t, we can still agree to disagree and move on.”

Asked if a run of incidents affects the way he drives, Kimball says no, and that he tries to abide by his boss’s philosophy.

He comments: “Chip’s advice is probably the best in all cases. He tells us, ‘If you have a car that’s capable of winning, go win. If you have a car that’s only capable of finishing second, go finish second, and so on… But if you have a car that’s only capable of fifth, don’t drive way above your head to get fourth or third. By the same token, don’t underperform, either.”

Underperforming at IMS seems unlikely in Kimball’s case, yet he says it is not so much the nature of the track but the preparation beforehand and the approach on race day that makes it one of his strongest venues. 

“We’ve gone 13th, eighth, ninth, DNF, third, fifth," he says. "Last year, that fifth came after changing a front wing because of damage and having a hole in the underwing because of crash debris. So the fact that we made good fuel mileage at the end despite that much extra drag in the car was something better than we give ourselves credit for.

“It’s a 500-mile race and staying focused and committed for the whole race is key. It’s not one of those races where you close your eyes and hold your breath. Indy takes a methodical approach and I try and be really linear in my thought process. That’s genetically how I am but I really try and apply that to get the best results in places like this.”

Kimball is not going to let worries over contract renewal affect his methodology, either.

“Every single race I go into, I’m fighting to prove myself to myself; my perspective about me is what matters the most," he adds. "Maximizing the tools I have internally is on me, and every single race I try to do that. If I’m successful enough on and off the racetrack to have a job in this series, then that takes care of itself.

“I can’t control whether a team owner wants me to drive for them; I can only control what I do on track, in the boardroom and in the community. Novo Nordisk appreciate the work I do in the diabetes community and see value in the program.”

Unsurprisingly, Kimball doesn’t want his seventh year at Ganassi to be his last, but he’s not going to let media speculation distract him.

“I love this team and the relationships I have here,” he says. “They have incredible resources here and if the opportunity comes up to continue here, it’s a very strong team and I’d like to stay. But I think there are other places in the paddock that could be a good fit as well. 

“But we haven’t had that conversation yet. Everyone involved is fully committed to the end of this contract and to be honest, I’m not thinking past the weekend. Contracts are for my management to think about and if I go out and win the Indy 500, it changes perspectives, right? If I go out and don’t perform because I’m thinking about the future or whatever, that changes things too.

“As I said, every single race is a chance to prove what I’m capable of. The rest of it is somewhat out of my control. I just need to do the best job I can do, every single time.”

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