LEXINGTON, OHIO (AP) - Chip Ganassi had a plan. Of course he did. He always does.
When the relentless IndyCar owner hired Charlie Kimball to drive the No. 83 Honda in 2011, Ganassi did it with implicit instructions. None of those instructions included racing to win.
“He’s telling you to go out and just finish the races and learn as much as possible,” Kimball said. “And you get a lot of flak for not getting the results that you might expect or want to, but you’re following the boss’s orders.”
By year three, Ganassi believed Kimball would be ready to win. And as usual, Ganassi was right.
Kimball’s dominating victory in the Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on Sunday did more than allow the 28-year-old to raise a trophy for the first time in his IndyCar career. It also put to rest the notion he would spend his time at Ganassi as the program’s third wheel.
Not that Franchitti needed to be convinced. The four-time series champion knows talent when he sees it. He watched Kimball’s team build momentum and realized it was only a matter of time before he would find himself on the podium looking up at his teammate.
“He’s smart and he’s taken full advantage of the fact that he’s a member of the team, the Ganassi team and all the stuff that he’s got available to him, whether it’s experience or the engineering group or equipment at his disposal,” said Franchitti, who finished third behind Kimball and Simon Pagenaud. “He’s taking full advantage of it.”
The path to Victory Lane was triggered by a call early in the race to switch strategy. All three Ganassi cars tried to get through the 90-lap event needing only two pit stops. Doing it required the drivers to sip fuel rather than mash on the gas. It became evident early on the better idea would be to floor it and hope the extra time in the pits could be made up by quicker laps on the track.
It also served as an opportunity for Ganassi to “hedge” his bets, as Kimball put it. Unlike Dixon and Franchitti, who are still in the picture for the season championship, Kimball could afford to gamble. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, well, he hadn’t planned on celebrating at the track where he broke his hand a year ago in testing anyway.
Yet it quickly became apparent the decision to race instead of coast was the way to go. While Dixon, pole-sitter Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power tried to stretch their mileage like a family on their way to the beach for summer vacation, Kimball practically drove the wheels off.
The only tricky spot came with 18 laps to go when Pagenaud exited pit road with the lead. Out on the track, Kimball ate up nearly all the deficit but ended up sliding into the grass when Pagenaud cut off Kimball’s initial pass attempt.
Pagenaud couldn’t do it twice. Kimball zipped past Pagenaud a few moments later and won by more than five seconds.
“I said at the beginning of the year that the last couple of years, we got the experience, we built the foundation, and as a team, we are ready to win,” Kimball said. “Now we just need to do it.”
The win produced a moment Kimball didn’t quite believe was possible after he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007. He considered retiring, fearing the disease would prevent his body from withstanding the rigors of sitting inside a hot, cramped and noisy cockpit for hours at a time.
A disciplined diet and a monitor he can access while racing allayed those fears. Closing in on the biggest moment of his career on Sunday at the technically demanding 2.258-mile circuit, Kimball dutifully checked his glucose levels every 5-10 laps. The numbers never strayed out of normal range, leaving Kimball free to soak in the moment.
“You can still live your dreams with diabetes,” Kimball said.
One that became a reality for Kimball and tamped down any lingering doubts he had about his ability to compete against IndyCar’s best, including the two guys in the adjoining garages. The victory “quieted a lot of voices” including the one in his head. Now he can focus on the next step in a future getting brighter lap by lap.
“I think builds momentum for not just the rest of the season,” Kimball said, “but the next few years.”
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