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IndyCar 2016 driver review: Remaining part-time entrants

Indianapolis 500 - Carb Day

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27: Matt Brabham of Australia, driver of the #61 PIRTEK Team Murray Chevrolet, drives on Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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MotorSportsTalk concludes its look through the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver, with these drivers who raced in two or fewer events:

23. JR Hildebrand (2 starts)
24. Oriol Servia (2 starts)
28. Townsend Bell (1 start)
29. Pippa Mann (2 starts)
30. Matthew Brabham (2 starts)
31. Alex Tagliani (2 starts)
32. Sage Karam (1 start)
33. Bryan Clauson (1 start)
34. Stefan Wilson (1 start)
35. Buddy Lazier (1 start)

JR Hildebrand, No. 6 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

Hildebrand did his now usual workmanlike double dip for Ed Carpenter Racing when in the No. 6 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and 100th Indianapolis 500, but the Californian who now lives in Colorado made a more significant impact on the season – and team - than his two race starts.

As test driver for Carpenter, Hildebrand filled in admirably for Josef Newgarden on multiple occasions, and it spoke volumes about his feedback that Hildebrand was one of two drivers selected by INDYCAR to test future aerodynamic components at Mid-Ohio over the summer. This is a tired and usual refrain we seem to write on an annual basis, but Hildebrand is far too good to be sidelined full-time, yet the question lingers whether he ever makes it back fully beyond his part-time status.

Oriol Servia, No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet and No. 77 Schmidt Peterson/Marotti Honda

Servia added Team Penske to his litany of teams he’s driven for courtesy of an eleventh hour call-up at St. Petersburg, then was a late signing for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ third car, co-entered by Marotti Racing, for the Indianapolis 500. That brought his career total of teams driven for in 16 seasons and 199 starts to 14.

And as usual, the Catalan was clean and dependable as ever. Servia was in the frame for a top-10 at St. Pete before being caught out on strategy. At Indy, a top-10 starting position produced 12th at the finish. He remains the go-to fill-in at this level, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll ever make it back full-time beyond that role.

Townsend Bell, No. 29 Andretti Autosport Honda

If only for that one pit stop, we could be looking at our NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell having had the greatest single month for a driver in racing history.

Bell starred all month in the fifth and extra Andretti Autosport entry; he gelled instantly with the team, engineer Craig Hampson and the crew. Up to and including race day, Bell was incredibly impressive. He produced arguably the save of the year going into Turn 1 at 240-plus mph in practice, then in the race started fourth, led more laps than he had his entire IndyCar career, and seemed along with teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti’s best bet to capture the win.

And then Lap 117 happened. Call it a miscommunication or the breakdown of a one-off pit crew unable to match the regulars, but Bell was released, he hit Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves, and his win hopes were over. Coupled with some other aggressive moves throughout the race it proved a tough end for easily his best – and we hope not last – chance to win the Indy 500. But hey, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans with longtime co-drivers Bill Sweedler and Jeff Segal a month later was a welcome way to atone.

Pippa Mann, Nos. 63 and 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda

Mann’s grit, pluck, tenacity and determination are admirable, and those qualities again shone through in the face of adversity at a couple moments in her two starts this season.

At Indy, she was doing rather well in practice before her first qualifying run on Saturday, when a rear wing end fence broke and snapped her car around in Turn 2. But she did an excellent job to minimize much damage with a pretty good save. She was then the top Honda in practice the final full day on Monday and famously described the track activity as “Carb Day on steroids.” Unfortunately a heavier crash occurred on Carb Day, but her Dale Coyne Racing crew again got her back going.

In both the Indianapolis 500 race and in a late-season call-up at Pocono to Coyne’s flagship No. 19 car, Mann brought the car home in one piece after 500 miles. She’s finished six of them in a row, dating to the 2014 ‘500. Indy was a better race no question; a top-10 was possible before a late splash for fuel and an eventual P18, still best of Coyne’s four cars on the day. Pocono saw her fight an ill-handling race car in her first working with another new engineer, and her comfort level wasn’t on par with her ‘500 engineer, Rob Ridgely. Nevertheless, she persevered – a common refrain in her occasional starts, and a continued testament to her will to improve.

Matthew Brabham, No. 61 PIRTEK Team Murray Chevrolet

The 22-year-old Australian American was a welcome addition to the field for the month of May along with the PIRTEK Team Murray group, and did well to overachieve given the KV Racing-affiliated team’s budgetary limitations. Working with veteran engineer Andy Brown gave him a leg up and his run to 14th on the grid at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis was quite impressive, given it was his first time on Firestone’s red tires.

More often than not on the oval, Brabham was left hanging onto a seemingly nasty handling race car and so he did well to keep it in one piece throughout the month, and bank a finish. Like so many other talented youngsters he’s got the chops, and he has the name, but not the budget to see whether he’ll get more opportunities. But staying as active as he did, doing both two-seater work and testing the new Tatuus USF-17 car on the Lucas Oil Raceway oval, did nothing to hurt his cause or growth.

Alex Tagliani, No. 35 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Honda

Tagliani’s month of May program with A.J. Foyt Enterprises was expanded to both the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and 100th Indianapolis 500 with the goal of doing the road course race meant to help all parties in the third car for the 500.

It sort of worked. Tagliani struggled to readapt to the new aero kit era of road course racing in his first road course start in three years and had a rough remainder of the month, with a crash in qualifying resigning him to 33rd and last on the ‘500 grid. Ever the fighter and strategic gambler, Tagliani briefly led once again before fading to 17th. He’s still bankable, but a notch below the Hildebrand-Servia competitive level in his limited IndyCar action these days.

Sage Karam, No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold/Kingdom Racing Chevrolet

With lower expectations and a chip on his shoulder, Karam was an excellent sleeper pick for this year’s Indianapolis 500, along with the Dreyer & Reinbold-Kingdom Racing team.

It damn near worked to perfection. Qualifying didn’t go so well but Karam knew he had a great car in traffic for the race, and so it was he was up to fourth – before contact with Bell and getting in the marbles knocked him up the road and into the Turn 1 wall.

The toughest part about Karam’s year, I thought, was seeing how the No. 8 Ganassi car he was dumped from didn’t fare much better with the more heralded Max Chilton behind the wheel. Not seeing Karam have the opportunity to grow from a year one to a year two was a lost shot.

Bryan Clauson, No. 88 Dale Coyne/Jonathan Byrd’s Racing Honda

Clauson’s loss stings and is widely felt, a couple months on after his passing in August.

His third Indianapolis 500 start, sadly his last, was his best though. The Jonathan Byrd Racing-supported driver easily clicked with the Dale Coyne Racing team and enjoyed a comfort level he hadn’t had since his opening days with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in 2012.

Leading those extra laps off sequence, including the 100th lap before pitting, and banking his first ‘500 finish was a welcome result for the likable, now gone, 27-year-old from Noblesville.

Stefan Wilson, No. 25 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet

Wilson fulfilled a dream and a legacy by starting the 100th Indianapolis 500. He never expected his ‘500 debut would come alone in the family, without older brother Justin there by his side – or perhaps near him on the grid.

The 26-year-old pulled together a late deal for a third car with KV Racing Technology but while the car’s livery popped and it was for a great cause, arguably the best thing you can say about Wilson’s month was that he held onto the car every time – the car was less than ideal from a handling standpoint.

That spoke to his performance levels not having faded despite having been out of an IndyCar since 2013, and never having driven one on an oval. The ‘500 start coupled with a full season in the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America reestablished Wilson as a driver keen to race on his own, and helped restart a paused driving career.

Buddy Lazier, No. 4 Lazier/Burns Racing Chevrolet

You can’t fault Buddy Lazier’s enthusiasm or dedication to competing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Another late deal saw his family-run team make the grid once more, this time with additional investment from past 1990s team owner Thom Burns, in the renumbered No. 4 Chevrolet.

But while Lazier’s presence brought back good memories of his 1996 win, 20 years on, the 2016 edition was never going to be much more than a fill-the-field type of effort. To his and the team’s credit, they got out on the first day of practice, made it into the 227-mph range once the boost was turned up, and got back out for the race after a mechanical resigned them to the pits at the green flag.

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