Chilton aiming to do more than just lead Indy 500

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Max Chilton learned a lot from leading last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

He was out front for a race-high 50 laps and still in first in the late stages before being passed seven laps from the finish. After finishing fourth for Chip Ganassi Racing, his best Verizon IndyCar Series result in two seasons, what happened next resonated as much as anything.

“Roger Penske came straight up as I was getting out of the car, when he hadn’t won so he probably wasn’t feeling the best, but he came up and said, ‘That was a fantastic drive. You deserve that,’” Chilton said of the legendary team owner. “He didn’t need to do that. I had never spoken to him before.

“(Team Penske’s) Helio (Castroneves) didn’t win the race, so I’m sure (Penske) wasn’t in the best of moods, but that meant a lot. From a man who has been here so many times, won it so many times, that was a nice touch. I know I did a good job. You’ve got to take it with pride. It was still the best bit of my career and hopefully I can better it.”

Chilton changed teams in the offseason and now drives the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet for Carlin, which is making its Verizon IndyCar Series debut in 2018. There’s a lot to learn for everyone, but the 27-year-old Englishman liked the strides made during this week’s testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We had a very solid first day for a team which has never driven an Indy car around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which we all know is the biggest challenge in racing,” he said. “I think they did a remarkable job. The good thing for me was I felt confident in the car. Considering there’s a lot less downforce for everybody, I thought the car was pretty race-able. For a team which has just come into it, we’ve done a good job.”

He admits he’s come a long way in a short time since his 2016 debut, when he finished 19th in the points with just two top-10 finishes for Chip Ganassi Racing. Chilton improved to 11th in the standings last year, in large part because of his successful double-points run in the Indy 500. He had five other top-10 finishes, including seventh in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course. That’s the next race on the schedule on May 12 (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).

Much like getting acclimated at IMS during testing, this season admittedly has been a work in progress for Carlin, which has made its name worldwide in junior open-wheel formulas but is making its first jump to the top level of any series this season. Chilton is 20th in the points and has yet to crack the top 10 in four starts. But he’s confident the team can improve.

“My first laps out there (in IMS testing), I was doing 204s and everyone else was doing 218s, so I didn’t feel too comfortable,” Chilton said. “The last stint, I had to push myself. I had to get uncomfortably comfortable. It’s amazing how 220 mph suddenly feels quite comfortable.”

Chilton proved something to himself as a driver last year at the speedway.

“I was the quickest on Carb Day by quite a ways, so I can be quick in different disciplines, whether the car is set up for the race or qualifying,” he said. “We’ll just keep working away. All I know of Indy, you’ve got a lot of running (opportunities in practice). Don’t make big changes. Always feel safe, then you finally start trimming out before qualifying. It’s all about getting laps under your belt.”

Should history repeat itself on May 27 (11 a.m., ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network) and he’s in the lead pack near the end of the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Chilton is hopeful he can show what he learned from leading a year ago.

“I felt proud after the race,” he said. “Two days afterward, I was absolutely kicking myself with hindsight. If I could have just done that smallest of changes, that probably would have won me the 500.

“I’ve spoken to lots of my friends, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves. Helio has finished second three times. He probably kicked himself every time he finished second. Hindsight is one of those things. It happens to everybody. I was proud of what I did. For my second year in the sport, to lead 50 laps, well, I think was good. I know I can do it.”

He mentions an old adage that a driver must experience leading the Indy 500 before winning.

“I feel like if I’m in that position again,” Chilton said, “I’ll be able to at least defend for longer.”

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