Andretti Autosport’s shocking announcement Wednesday of the addition of two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso to the team’s roster for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 Presented by Penngrade Motor Oil in a joint venture with McLaren sent a shockwave that’s rippled through the motorsports world throughout the day.
The repercussions of the announcement have yet to be seen, but the one immediate effect it’s had on fans is a thought of whom else they’d like to see participate in the Month of May.
Every fan of the Indy 500 has a wish list – a group of drivers they’d love to see among the field of 33 taking the green flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with dreams of a cool drink of milk three hours later.
Most F1 stars will never see a Verizon IndyCar Series start materialize, but the possibility is much higher for the talented drivers of the NASCAR garage.
Many of stock car racing’s best have taken trips to Indianapolis over the years to start off ‘The Double’, a grueling day of racing that sees them contest 1100 miles of racing in 10 hours – 500 miles in Indianapolis before making quick flight to Charlotte Motor Speedway to participate in the Coca-Cola 600 for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS).
John Andretti was the first to accomplish the feat, finishing 10th and 36th in Indy and Charlotte, respectively, in 1994. Former IndyCar champion Tony Stewart returned to Gasoline Alley to run the Indy 500 twice, and Robby Gordon impressively managed ‘The Double’ five times from 1997-2004.
The most recent driver to attempt double duty was Kurt Busch, who finished a rookie-best sixth in Indianapolis but was cut short of completing 1100 miles by an engine failure in Charlotte in 2014.
Speculation has persisted in the three years since the elder Busch brother’s Indy 500 foray that another NASCAR driver would give the race a shot.
Thus far none have made an attempt, but that hasn’t stopped those among us that love both events from debating who the best drivers for the job may be.
Here are the top five Indianapolis candidates in the eyes of this Hoosier scribe.
1) Kyle Busch
The Indianapolis 500 has already seen Kurt Busch, so why not add his little brother?
Kyle Busch is one of NASCAR’s top stars, and with 171 wins across the three national series at just 31 years old, the Nevadan may well be en-route to the highest win total in the sport’s history.
An impressive showing at January’s Race of Champions exhibition proved just how talented Busch is, and he’s already expressed interest in running the Month of May. His NASCAR team owner, Joe Gibbs, already has experience with a driver pulling double duty, having fielded Tony Stewart’s efforts in the early 2000s.
The interest is there, and ‘Rowdy’ has a career resume to warrant the start. The only things that appear to stand between the 2015 MENCS champion and an Indy car ride are sponsorship, a team to field him and, perhaps, the approval of wife Samantha Busch.
If those things can all come together with the right team, the sight of Busch’s signature victory bow preceding a drink of milk isn’t terribly difficult to imagine.
2) Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson has been a popular choice in the “NASCAR drivers who should run IndyCar” debate ever since he first came to the Cup Series in 2014.
With a background that includes multiple wins in USAC, the World of Outlaws, the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona and, as of last year, all three of NASCAR’s national series, Larson is perceived as a wheelman that can win in any vehicle he wheels.
So why not wheel an Indy car at Indianapolis?
He has the talent, and the correct team owner to make it happen in Chip Ganassi. In fact, the possibility of Larson running the event has been so strong since his win at Auto Club Speedway this season that NBC Sports’ Tony Dizinno wrote an open letter to Ganassi in support of the move that ultimately led the winning car owner to address the idea with reporters at Long Beach.
“We’re in an enviable position,” Ganassi said. “When you have good cars and a good manufacturer, you’ve got a lot of people who want to drive your cars. Not that Larson wouldn’t be at or near the top of the list. There’s opportunities out there.
“I think Kyle understands we have to weigh what’s good for Kyle and what’s good for the business. If it’s a great thing for Kyle and a bad thing for the business, he know that doesn’t work and vice versa. Right now there are some other things going on in the team that we need to be focused on, so as of this May it’s going to be pretty much status quo.’’
The interest seems to be there, and Ganassi sounds open to the idea. The right sponsor and movement just needs to come along to make it happen.
3) Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski has an appreciation for IndyCar. The 2012 MENCS champion has even driven the car, participating in a series test at Road America last summer in Team Penske colleague Simon Pagenaud’s Chevrolet.
“I’ve always wanted to drive an Indy car, I think (Penske Racing President) Tim Cindric knew that,” Keselowski told INDYCAR after the test. “The opportunity came up to dip my toes in the water and kind of expand my knowledge base and put it in the back of my mind for wherever it goes, I don’t know. But it was a heck of an opportunity and I’m glad to have a chance.”
Keselowski left the opportunity open for another ride in an Indy car, though little has been said of the test in the months since that day.
Whether he has any interest in racing one of the machines in unknown. But if he does, the opportunity could be there. Team Penske is arguably IndyCar’s top current team, with championships in two of the last three seasons, and the organization is capable of fielding extra cars should they choose, as evidenced by Juan Pablo Montoya’s impending return to Penske for this year’s Month of May.
The biggest issues would likely rest with sponsorship and Penske’s manufacturers – Keselowski would need to jump from a Chevrolet to a Ford in the same day, a much more challenging sell than Kurt Busch’s leap from a Honda (which doesn’t compete in NASCAR) to a Chevrolet in 2014.
Keselowski took just three full seasons to claim a Cup championship. Given his adaptability, watching the Michigander attempt to figure out an Indy car could prove worth the price of admission.
4) Jimmie Johnson
This is arguably the longest shot in this group, but it may also be the most intriguing.
Since his debut at the end of 2001, Jimmie Johnson has quickly evolved into one of the best drivers in NASCAR history. With 81 victories and seven championships in the MENCS, Johnson’s resume is unparalleled by any other active driver.
Given that, Johnson could be argued as the top driver in the Cup Series paddock. Why not give NASCAR’s best a shot at an Indy car?
The opportunity wouldn’t be easy to create. Unlike Keselowski or Larson, Johnson doesn’t have the owner tie-in. Hendrick Motorsports sticks exclusively to stock car racing, and he also lacks the potential family tie-in that Kyle Busch has with brother Kurt and Andretti Autosport.
Furthermore, Johnson has never expressed much interest in an Indy car, and at 41 years old the Californian doesn’t have much time to make the opportunity happen.
Still, the thought is a promising one. Who doesn’t love the idea of one sport’s best athlete trying their hand at another sport?
5) Christopher Bell
This concept would take a few years to develop, but much like an MLB prospect that rises up through the minors, Christopher Bell could prove an excellent candidate for this opportunity if his career develops correctly.
Much like Larson, Bell is an open wheel ace that has arrived at NASCAR amid a promising dirt career. The 22-year-old currently runs for Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM) in the Camping World Truck Series, adding occasional starts in dirt sprint cars and midgets, as well as asphalt late models as his schedule allows.
The Oklahoman is still honing his craft in stock cars, but he’s already proven himself to be a wheelman in both open wheel and stock cars with a resume that includes victories ranging from late models at Winchester Speedway to the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals.
Bell will likely need a bit more star power behind his name to catch the eye of the right people to make an Indianapolis opportunity happen, but the young prospect is on the right team to make it happen. KBM already has two former drivers in the MENCS (Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones), as well as one driver (Darrell Wallace, Jr.) in the XFINITY Series.
If Bell can find success in the Truck Series and bring the right amount of sponsorship, a move up the NASCAR ladder – and even perhaps a trip to the Brickyard in May – isn’t out of reach.