News Analysis: Danica Patrick to retire from full-time racing

What happened: Danica Patrick will retire from full-time racing and conclude her career with two races next season: the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, she announced Friday afternoon. In an emotional and often tearful news conference, Patrick said she wasn’t forced into leaving NASCAR but was “nudged” into the next phase of her life after a ride for 2018 did not materialize. The 35-year-old has seven top-10 finishes and no top-fives in 189 career Cup Series races. Patrick acknowledged she has had “a little bit more struggle on a car-to-car basis than everyone, and it took me a really long time to say that. … With stock cars, the closing rates aren’t quite as quick, so I think it showed up more over time in stock cars just because you can be more defensive than in an IndyCar.”

What it means: The Great Star Power Drain continues in NASCAR. Whether or not you thought Patrick was worthy of an elite Cup Series ride for five full seasons despite not producing results on the track, you can’t argue with the name recognition she brought to NASCAR. There are people in this country who can only name one NASCAR driver — and it’s her. Though her celebrity and fame didn’t save NASCAR from its decline or turn the sport around, Patrick absolutely brought new eyes to the sport and created new fans — many of them young females — by giving people someone different to root for. Her loss, particularly combined with the departures of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., is a big blow to NASCAR when it comes to coverage in the general sports world.

News value (scale of 1 to 10): 10. This is a mega celebrity retiring from NASCAR when some people were hopeful she could somehow remain in the sport and find another team despite her ride at Stewart-Haas Racing going to Aric Almirola.

Three questions: What team will Patrick run the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 with? Can she jump back into an IndyCar and be competitive again? In a decade from now, what will Patrick’s NASCAR legacy be?

12 Questions with Scott Dixon

The series of 12 Questions interviews continues this week with four-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, who came up short of his quest to win another title Sunday at Sonoma Raceway. Dixon, who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, is fourth on the all-time IndyCar wins list with 41 victories.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I think it’s always a compromise, but it’s a team sport, so it’s definitely across all platforms of the good people on the team — engineers, mechanics, strategists — so it’s never just one person. I think that’s the most important thing, is you gotta work together as much as you can. And for myself, yeah, some of it is natural ability, but I think to keep consistency and win championships and so on, it takes a lot of hard work.

2. What’s your pitch for people to become fans of yours?

I think across the board, the Verizon IndyCar series has so many different personalities. There’s so many people from different countries, different backgrounds, so everybody has someone they can kind of relate with, and I think that’s pretty cool. But I don’t know — because I’m a ginger, maybe? 

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

I think the separation sometimes from family life to racing life can be tough, but it’s also been really nice to have kids, because it helps you mentally kind of disconnect and helps you to not overthink things. So I think actually my outside family life is very important to how my racing career has progressed.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah, absolutely. Whatever they need. I’ll get their meal, too. (Smiles)

5. What’s a story in IndyCar that doesn’t get enough coverage?

Probably this Aussie guy, Will Power (who was walking by at the moment). He’s always moaning about being sore or a bad leg.

I don’t know. I think the racing is the best in the world. I think once people tune in, they’re hooked, and it is the diversity between the short tracks and the superspeedways, road courses, street courses — it’s just getting the person engaged, and once they’re engaged, they’re hooked.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Probably Tony Kanaan, my teammate.

You frequently text him?

Group messages, yeah, there’s quite a few. Yeah, that was probably him. He was probably the last, or Dario (Franchitti). He’s an ex-driver, but we text a lot.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Some of them for sure are very big entertainers. Helio (Castroneves). (James) Hinchcliffe did pretty well on Dancing with the Stars, so sure.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

On the racetrack? Use it at will.

What happens if you get it done to you?

I’ll probably do something back, probably the same thing. Maybe two of them.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

No, only a list for bad things. (Smiles) You know, I don’t keep any kind of lists. Depending on what it is, you have memories of what stands out, but I think you should be nice to people.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Probably Marco Andretti. (Grins)

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

I should probably stop biting my nails.

Is it a long time habit?

My wife hates it.

12. The last interview I did was with Chris Buescher.  His question is: What makes you crazy enough to strap into one of those things?

I don’t know. It’s just natural, man. He needs to try it out, then he’ll understand.

He said he can’t do it.

Yeah he can! Come on.

The next interview I’m doing is with Jimmie Johnson. Do you have a question that I can ask Jimmie?

What kind of underwear does he wear? It is briefs, boxers or tighty whities?

This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place NEXT WEEKEND(!!!) at Dover. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).

A NASCAR fan guide to the IndyCar championship race

Guess what race is on Sunday right after the Chicagoland race on the same channel (NBCSN)?

Yep, it’s the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale — a race which will decide the championship from among six eligible drivers.

I’m here at Sonoma and am going to be blowing your timelines up about the race, so you might as well watch with me. If you haven’t followed IndyCar much this year or are just a casual fan, here’s a quick guide to the race to get you caught up:

What’s at stake?

Sonoma Raceway is the 17th and final race of the IndyCar season, and six drivers can still win the title. They are the four Team Penske drivers — rising star Josef Newgarden, defending series champ Simon Pagenaud and veterans Will Power and Helio Castroneves — plus four-time series champion Scott Dixon and 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

Who has the advantage?

Before answering that, let’s take a look at the current driver point standings.

  1. Josef Newgarden  –Leader–
  2. Scott Dixon -4
  3. Helio Castroneves -23
  4. Simon Pagenaud -35
  5. Will Power -69
  6. Alexander Rossi -85

Those have been updated after Saturday’s qualifying session, because IndyCar awards one bonus point to the pole winner — and Newgarden put down a monster, track-record lap to start from P1.

Still, it’s tough to say who has the edge right now. In Friday’s two practice sessions, Newgarden had the quickest overall time. But in Saturday’s practice, Pagenaud, Dixon and Power all went even faster.

Plus, top five drivers in the point standings were also the top five drivers in final practice (just in a different order). Since they were only separated by 0.44 second, it really could be anyone’s race among the contenders.

So how does the championship race work?

Sonoma is a double points event — one of only two on the schedule, along with the Indy 500. That twist could play a massive role in the outcome of the championship, because the points are soooo close.

At a typical IndyCar race, first place is worth 50 points and second place gets 40. But at Sonoma, it’s 100 for first place and only 80 for second — a 20-point gap between first and second!

That means Newgarden, Dixon and likely Castroneves (depending on bonus points) are all in situations where a Sonoma victory will mean the championship (which has happened the last two years).

And really, Pagenaud isn’t in a bad spot, either (though he could use some help from his competition finishing off the podium). Power and Rossi are much bigger longshots at this point, even if they win.

How did they get to this point?

Newgarden has a series-leading four wins and eight podium finishes this season, but his lead is only four points thanks to a gaffe in the most recent race at Watkins Glen.

After entering the Glen with a 31-point lead over Dixon — thanks to winning three of four races — Newgarden locked up his tires in the pits while avoiding teammate Will Power and slid into the guardrail. That cost him 28 points of his lead, which was whittled to just four.

Dixon has just one win but has made finished on the podium seven times — second in the series. And he’s going up against the entire Penske team, which has been the most consistent this season.

What are they saying?

— Newgarden, who was totally fired up after his track-record lap to get the pole — his first since 2015 — is going into the race with a nothing-to-lose attitude.

“If I drop the ball and totally ball it up this weekend, I’m still going to be pretty happy with this year,” the 26-year-old American said. “That’s not to say I’m going to settle for that or that I’m looking to settle for something like that.

“But the only way I think you can approach this and get the most out of it and try and treat it like any other weekend. The moment you think, ‘Hey, this is championship week — you mess it up, you’re not the champion,’ then I think that can put you in a wrong place mentally.”

— Power, who qualified second, has a fast car but needs some help to pull off his second championship.

“It’s absolutely possible,” he said. “I mean, if Scott and Josef have a bad day, I can be right there. Yeah, see how it all plays out.”

— Pagenaud, who won this race en route to the championship last season, is feeling confident after qualifying third.

“Quite satisfied,” he said after his lap. “Overall it’s awesome for Team Penske, 1-2-3-4 once again here. A testament to the team doing such a good job. Nothing’s lost. Tomorrow is a long race. Lots of tire wear. I’m hoping for a really strong showing.”

— Speculation about Castrovenes’ future has been swirling lately, but it would certainly be nice for him to pull off an improbable title at age 42. He’s in a virtual win-and-clinch situation since there it’s a double points race.

“We wanted this championship as bad as anybody,” he said after qualifying fourth. “We do have a chance. We’re going to obviously try to execute. That’s our goal.”

— Dixon, the best driver of his generation, knows he has his work cut out for him. But it’s not like anyone can dismiss his chances.

“Sixth position, you can definitely make lots happen from there,” he said. “I think in ’15 we started ninth when we won that race. Definitely you’d want to be a little further up. But that’s the way it goes.”

Social Spotlight with Josef Newgarden

Each week, I’ll be asking a member of the motorsports community about their social media usage. This week: Josef Newgarden of Team Penske’s IndyCar program. I spoke to Newgarden at Indianapolis Motor Speedway prior to the Indy 500.

I was just looking at your Twitter account. One thing that jumped out at me: You have only liked one tweet. Are you anti-like?

Well I guess everyone uses the platform differently, right? I’ve never really liked photos. I liked that one photo of all the helmets at the Indianapolis 500 lined up, which is a very cool photo.

You know, I’m like OCD almost. I’m either gonna like a ton of stuff or not like anything. I guess it’s weird that I have one like, but yeah, I’ve never really used it for that.

With Twitter, I more so use it for responding to people. It’s a great platform to answer questions — just cause people can ask you whenever — or just give out information about where you are or where you can meet, something like that.

I like a ton of tweets, because it’s my way of saying, “I acknowledge that.” But I always feel like if somebody was going to my account they’d see all these random-ass tweets that make no sense and have no order. So I kind of like your clean, uncluttered view.

Yeah, I mean that’s how I am. It’s very OCD I guess, but it’s just the way I’ve always been so I have not changed it. I’ll try to answer more, because I’m with you — a like is like an acknowledgment and it’s nice for someone to see that you like their post or that you at least saw it. But I try to answer as much as I can. I probably should answer a lot more, but if I’m gonna acknowledge it, I normally just answer to it.

Are you using Twitter as your newsfeed? Do you look at it every day in the morning?

Yeah, I do actually. I still think Twitter is probably the best social platform for quick news. (With) Facebook, you get kind of the same; it’s more blown up content and it’s kind of a bigger view of news. But Twitter’s really easy to just ramble through everything and it can always just give you a link to go somewhere to look at something bigger.

But yeah, I like it for (news). I like following informational sites (like) Wired.com if you wanna see something with tech. I mean it just can be any of these news outlets. I think it’s really helpful for that. So I like following it and then for me as a driver, I think it’s great for giving people information on what you’re doing or where you’re gonna be if there’s a meet-and-greet or something like that.

Now on the downside of this, Twitter can be sort of nasty at times. There are some trolls on there. How do you deal with that: Do you block people? Do you mute people? Do you just ignore it?

I just ignore it — I honestly do. I don’t even reply. There’s been a couple times where I’ve replied just cause I couldn’t help myself I guess, but I’ll never follow a reply. I’ll say something, have my two cents, and then just be done with it.

If it gets worse and starts spiraling out of control, I don’t continue. It’s literally one thing: That’s what I said (and leave it at that). And if I said something wrong, I’ll try to apologize, because it’s easy to get looked at wrong on social media for saying something that you didn’t mean or it had come across the wrong way.

But for the most part, I just ignore everything. There’s a lot of people that say a lot of stuff, and you just gotta be really good at just letting it go. I think that’s the best thing: To just let it go. And it’s probably the best way to handle it, cause these guys or girls, what they really want is a response. So if you don’t respond to them, it’s kind of the best thing to do, in my opinion.

We’ve all had situations where sometimes we’re following somebody and we’re like, “I don’t wanna follow this anymore. These tweets are irrelevant, they’re too much,” or whatever. How do you handle that? Do you just unfollow or do you mute people?

(Laughs) I think I’d go with the ignore thing again. I’ll see stuff I don’t like and I’ll just blow past it because I’ve gotten very efficient at scrolling fast. If I’m seeing stuff that I don’t wanna see, I’m just scrolling by it.

Even my girlfriend is like, “How are you even reading any of this?” And it’s literally just I’ll read one word and I’ll either like it or I don’t, so I just go past it. So I’ve not had to mute anyone, not really had to unfollow anybody because of that. I just ignore it.

What’s your take on Snapchat? I’ve seen you do some Snapchat takeovers, but do you have your own Snapchat account?

I can’t get into the Snapchat thing. I find it fascinating, because young kids now are — I mean, I’m a kid still I guess, technically — but you know, just young people that use Snapchat are so weird and hilarious, right? Like, people just have no shame. There’s no shame. And I don’t think people realize that if you put something on the Internet, it is permanent. OK? I don’t care if you delete it, it’s always there. You have put it out and into the world and it’s always in the world now. It’s gonna be there somewhere.

But people today, they don’t care. They love it. They want to share it. For me, I struggle because it’s like, Snapchat is a really constant thing. Like people want a photo here, photo here, video, video, video, like constantly little quick five-second blurbs.

So I feel like you’re missing out on the experience. I’d rather have one nice video or one nice photo of it and take the rest of the time to enjoy that experience. That’s why I can’t get into Snapchat.

That is true though. You go to a concert or something and everybody’s Snapchat is open. Or even here on 500 race day, I’m gonna walk around and anybody that’s under 20, they’re on Snapchat, and that’s the ultimate looking-through-your-screen thing.

Yeah, it’s a love/hate cause I’ve gotten sucked into the social media thing where I don’t post a ton — but I’m always on it. I’m always looking at it just cause I’m trying to understand it, what works, what doesn’t work, what people want to see, what they don’t want to see, what other people are doing. I get sucked into that game and I love and I hate it.

Social media is so great because it’s really a great tool, it’s awesome; the connectivity of it is amazing. But at the same time I also hate it because I just want to enjoy whatever I’m doing, you know? I want to be in the moment, in the present. I’m a little bit old school, I guess. It was almost nice when we didn’t have all this technology. So it’s a love/hate. I love technology, but I also hate it at the end of the day.

You said that you’ve tried to observe what works, what doesn’t, things like that. In your theory, what is your general philosophy on how much to share, what makes people respond to you, things like that?

I do think people want you to be real. I try to be as authentic as possible. Whatever I say is me; there’s no sugarcoating it. Maybe it’s a little bit politically correct sometimes, but it’s my opinion, so I’ll always be honest about that.

I’ve always tried to keep my personal life out it, which a lot of people think is a mistake because most people want to see the inside world that they normally wouldn’t, and that’s one of the nice things about social media — you get to see things that you wouldn’t normally get to see if you didn’t know a person, right

But I try to keep that separate. I use it much for more the professional side of, “Here’s what I’m doing professionally. Here’s what I’m doing in racing,” or it has something to do with racing. That’s all I use it for and I try to maximize that as best as I can.

I think I noticed that on your Instagram as well, because if you scroll through your Instagram feed almost everything is you at the track. It’s not stuff like, “Oh, here’s me doing this,” that kind of thing.

Yeah, pretty much. I use the platforms differently. Like Instagram I use more as an artwork page. I think it’s just beautiful photos of race cars, maybe some photos of me that people want to see within racing, but I normally like seeing photos of race cars myself, just really cool looking photos.

I’m a really big fan of photography actually. I’m not a great photographer, I’m not a photographer myself, but I really admire a lot of the photographers within the sport. Gosh, they get some awesome images sometimes, so I like sharing those and I also like seeing those.

That’s sort of what I use Instagram for, which really is what Instagram was originally made for: It’s a photo-sharing site. Twitter is more just, you can post a photo that doesn’t have to be beautiful; it’s just information, right?

Sometimes I try and be kind of random on my Twitter. I do try to show people my random side, which everyone I think has to some degree. You know, you’ll be eating fries or whatever one day and like you’ll have a thought on French fries and you just wanna share that. It has nothing to do with anything; it’s just a random sentence. I’ll sometimes do that on Twitter as well.

Is Facebook going the way of the dinosaurs like MySpace, or do you think that has a life?

I think it has a life, I just think it has an older life. That’s where all the moms, the grandfathers — it’s all old, you know? That’s not a bad thing: everyone has to have a demographic. I think Facebook’s just become more of an older demographic. There’s a place for that; you want to share with those types of folks as well. So I still get on it.

I look at Facebook and see a lot of things that’s going on. I do find it interesting (that) Facebook video has become very cool. For me, it’s become more of a younger reason to use it just because you don’t want to go to YouTube and search stuff; it’s really easy to see popular videos on Facebook now. I think they’ve done a great job with that. So if I use Facebook, it’s either to look at videos or to post a video. That’s, I think, one of the more useful tools for it.

From a sponsor standpoint and a team standpoint, are they telling you, “Hey, we want to see you on here, we want to see you doing this?” Is there a lot of that that goes on?

Yeah, for sure. I think you have to temper it. I think with either sponsorships or teams, you kind of measure your marketability. You measure how sell-able you are, how popular you are. It’s kind of terrible, but it’s just the way it is nowadays: everyone puts a value on social media. And so you have to have a presence almost, you’re forced to because of those factors, but I think I try to stay true to myself.

If there’s something I don’t wanna do on it, I just don’t do it. If it’s something that a sponsor really wants me to do and I don’t love it, then I try and spin it into something that is more authentic to me. I think that is always more impactful than just putting up an ad. You put up an ad and people can see it immediately like, “This is just a posted tweet that someone wanted you to put out.” And no one wants that — no one wants to see it. It’s not gonna help the company at the end of the day. So you gotta make it authentic and real, and I think that resonates a lot better with people.

Do you have one or two favorite people to follow on Twitter that people may not be following themselves right now?

I gotta say, probably the greatest person on Twitter, and I think a lot of people would agree, is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Now, he does the exact opposite of what I do — but he is a master at it. If you’re gonna go full-in and you’re gonna show people your world, I don’t think anyone has done it better than Dale Jr. He really masters it well. I think he’s fun to follow. For me, that’s why you follow someone on social media, is for that kind of stuff that I just said I don’t wanna do — and he’s probably the best at it. So I enjoy following him.

I just enjoy following all of the drivers because you get to see what everyone’s up to, whether it’s Jimmie Johnson or other NASCAR guys or it’s the IndyCar drivers like Scott Dixon. I enjoy following motorsports. Fernando Alonso, it’s been fun to follow him. Obviously, this is a new journey for him at Indianapolis so it’s interesting to see how he perceives the event, how he shows people the event. So I love following drivers.

Again, I like following news feeds, just different tech sites, any sort of news outlet that’s gonna give you good information on stuff that you’re interested in. I follow all those types of stuff.

Thanks to Dover International Speedway for sponsoring the 12 Questions and Social Spotlight over the past couple months. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race this weekend, please consider using my ticket link.

12 Questions with James Hinchcliffe

The series of 12 Questions driver interviews continues this week with IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe, who is currently 10th in the series standings after getting caught in a crash Sunday in the Indy 500. I spoke with Hinchcliffe in the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports garage at Indianapolis a few days before the race.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I would say 50/50. I’m definitely not one of those insanely naturally talented people. Let’s put it this way: My first go-kart race was horrendous. Like you didn’t put me in a go-kart and I was like instantly fast. I had to work at it. I had to figure out how to be fast.

I think if you’re at this level, you have a certain degree of natural talent for sure, but no doubt I had to work pretty hard to kind of figure out how to do this well.

What happened in the first go-kart race?

I got lapped on the third lap of the race, and it was pretty horrendous. I think by my fourth go-kart race when I was still being lapped my dad was like, “If this isn’t fun for you anymore, we can stop.” I’m like, “No, no. I am determined to figure out how to go quickly here.”

2. In general, what’s your pitch for people to become fans of yours?

Oh man. I guess, “Like attracts like.” I’m a fan of this sport. I’ve been on the other side of the fence, I’ve been the kid with a Sharpie and a hero card. I try to relate to fans like that as a fan, because even though I’m on the other side of the fence now, I’m still a die-hard fan of racing and I try to exude that and show that to my fans and show them the appreciation that we have for them in supporting us. 

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Probably the travel. Just the amount of time that you’re away from home, away from family, the amount of time you spend at airports and hotels and rental cars and lines for buses going to rental car centers. People think travel is very glamorous — and it can be sometimes — but that’s probably the biggest drain on you and probably one of the hardest parts.

Do most of the drivers not have jets in IndyCar?

No, we’re not quite rocking on the jet level. There’s a couple floating around out there, but that’s not a typical way of travel for an IndyCar driver.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah for sure, as long as they are polite about it. I think manners are important no matter what the scenario is. But I understand and accept that part of my job is being a public figure and that’s one of the sides of it. People are gonna recognize you and I like connecting with fans, so if they see me at a restaurant and they want a picture, then sure — just come up and ask.

5. What’s a story in IndyCar that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I feel like with the emergence of social media, even the smallest stories get broadcast out there one way or another. But I don’t think we talk enough about how Scott Dixon is the greatest IndyCar driver alive and maybe of all time when it all comes down to it.

No one’s gonna talk about it yet because he’s still driving, and there’s still guys like Mario (Andretti) and AJ (Foyt) walking around the paddock, so no one’s gonna say that when they’re still around. But 20 or 30 years from now — hopefully AJ and Mario are still around, but if they’re not, when Scott’s retired…hopefully he’s retired by then, but that guy can probably race until he’s 70 and still win. (But) I think you’re gonna see a lot of guys start talking about him in that way.

Guys like Mario will tell you that back in their day, it was different because the disparity between the good teams and the bad teams was much bigger. You had to have the right chassis, the right engine, the right tires and you were racing against four or five other really good guys. Now we have 15 guys that can win races in any given weekend for any team, and to be as consistently dominant and up front as Scott has for the last 15 years, I think it’s a pretty remarkable feat and I think that even guys like Mario would appreciate that.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Maybe Conor (Daly)? (Looks at phone) Uh…Alex Rossi. He was the last driver I texted.

Are you a frequent texter with other drivers?

Yes. (Scrolls through phone) I was also texting Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan this morning. I texted Conor last night. Charlie Kimball, we chat a lot. Yeah, I talk to a lot of drivers.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

I think all sportsmen, in a certain vein, are entertainers. Obviously in the racing world, they really try to bring up the rivalries and the reason they do that is because it’s entertaining to fans. But sports are entertainment, so yeah, I think if you’re a pro athlete, in some degree you are an entertainer.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

In the heat of the moment, man, anything goes. I would be super hypocritical to sit here and say that it’s inappropriate to use your middle finger on the track.

Has that evolved over the years, or has your policy remained consistent?

I think it’s been pretty consistent. I’ve probably, definitely, very unfortunately fallen into a pattern of using it more than I used to, and I don’t know why that is. It’s probably not the best thing.

I got yelled at last year. I used it in a race and Max Papis pulled me aside to scold me for it, and he was like, “Fist is fine, or whatever Italian (gesture with the hand under the chin) is fine, or like number one finger is fine — just not that one!”

And then the next time I stuck my hand out of the cockpit, it was one finger, but it wasn’t the one he wanted me to use.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Definitely. The big thing is when you find yourself in a situation — and it’s unfortunate but it happens in racing — where your race hasn’t gone well and you’re laps down. You’re taking care of the guys that are running for the race win and just running for positions, not trying to be the guy who’s three laps down trying to race you just as hard as if you were going for it.

That goes a long way, and there are definitely some drivers that have the experience to know that, “Look, this does me no good, it hurts you and ultimately makes you mad at me” kind of thing, and some guys just don’t get that. So when someone does you a favor when they’re in a position that they can’t really improve and they can help you out — or at least not get in your way — you definitely make a point to go to them after the race and be like, “Thanks buddy, I owe you one.”

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Lady Gaga.

Holy crap, that’s pretty big. What was that like?

It was awesome! That was actually after the (Indy) 500 last year. We went and had dinner with her at St. Elmo’s here in Indy, and yeah, she’s just a super cool girl. She was asking a lot of questions about racing. She was interested and fascinated by the whole thing. She’d been in the two-seater with Mario and the whole deal, so yeah — a very cool dinnertime chat.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

You can always improve as a driver. This is one of those sports (where), and a lot of athletes say the same thing, you never stop learning. In such a competitive environment, there’s always something you can do better. There are four or five different aspects of my game that I would spend, and I do spend a lot of time on, trying to improve — and I don’t think that will ever stop.

12. The last interview I did was with Jamie McMurray. He wanted to know: Fernando Alonso has come here and sucked up a lot of the attention so far. What do you make of all that, and how do you think he’s done so far?

I certainly understand it. The fact that we’ve got a guy that is in the conversation for greatest living racing driver giving up their crown jewel event, and in his very unique circumstances, the best chance he has at a good result all year, to come here and do the Indy 500. He’s not a guy who grew up in North America, he’s not a guy that grew up dreaming to race in IndyCar, but still, the Indy 500 has that much allure and is that important to racing drivers all over the world.

So I certainly understand why there’s a lot of attention around it. You know, we fully support him being here. It benefits us as much as anything else, and so it’s great in that sense.

How’s he doing? Annoyingly well. (Laughs) This is a very, very different thing than what he does on a weekly basis and it’s unlike anything he’s ever done. He’s put himself in some situations in practice that would frighten some more timid racing drivers, but you can tell this guy is the real deal. I mean, he got in those situations, dealt with it, got up to speed very quickly, got comfortable very quickly in traffic — which is the hardest part — and he put himself on one of the best teams since the new car came out in ’12, statistically the best team here at the Speedway. And he put himself in a really good position to do very well on Sunday, so it’ll be interesting to see.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with, but it will be some NASCAR driver. Do you have a question I might be able to ask him?

That was a good question from Jamie. I liked that one. I was expecting more like, “Are you a boxers or briefs kind of guy?” or something goofy. But as we’re going a little bit deeper and insightful in that sense…

Talking about great racing drivers, you’ve got Jimmie Johnson, who is gonna try and break the record for number of championships. It’s a two-part question: A. Do you think Jimmie will get the record? And B. How many championships do you think Jimmie will retire with when he finally decides to hang up the helmet?

This 12 Questions interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re thinking of attending the Dover race this weekend, please consider using my ticket link. Thanks!

Post-Indy 500 and Coke 600 podcast with nascarcasm

After a long day of racing, Internet troll @nascarcasm joins me to break down all things Indy 500 and Coke 600. We discuss the love for Fernando Alonso, Scott Dixon’s scary wreck, Austin Dillon’s first win and grilled onions. Plus, @nascarcasm’s musical debut.

Fernando Alonso wins American hearts, but not the Indy 500

Fernando Alonso came to Indianapolis with a nearly impossible task: To not only perform well enough to justify skipping the biggest race of the Formula One season, but to serve as an ambassador in the process.

Politicians have cracked under much less of a spotlight. Everyone wanted a piece of Alonso during his stay, and he had to divide his time between his team, a load of media commitments and endless fan requests — all while figuring out how to race on an oval for the first time.

And yet Alonso truly represented himself better than anyone could have hoped; despite the 24th-place finish after a blown engine, the journey to Indianapolis was a success on all fronts.

He raced and conducted himself like a champion in so many ways. Even though his success might made the Indy 500 look easier than it is, being able to adapt so quickly surely had to raise his reputation as an all-around great racer.

But Alonso is a great professional off the track as well.

Take Sunday, for example. He was faced with a major disappointment after leading 27 laps and having a chance to win the race, only to have his engine expire with 20 laps to go.

Had Alonso called it a day without talking to the media and just left the track to beat the traffic, few could have really blamed him. But he did the opposite.

He changed into street clothes and did a TV interview, then watched the end of the race (Alonso said he was “on my knees” rooting for teammate Takuma Sato). After that, he came to the media center to face a large group of reporters.

Alonso was not under obligation to come, but he realized what a story he was — this race will be remembered more for his presence than Sato’s win — so he agreed to the interview.

But by Sunday, it was no surprise he would accommodate such a request. That’s because he went along with everything IndyCar and the track asked him to do, never complaining or saying it was too much.

He probably said “sure” a thousand times, whether it was for a media hit or a selfie with a fan while in transit. And he exhibited good nature throughout, never looking bored (even during the public drivers meeting) or acting like he was too good for something (like the hour-long public autograph session the day before the race).

That’s very impressive for a two-time Formula One world champion who — let’s face it — could have been a jerk to everyone and still been just as much of a story. It’s not like reporters could say, “Screw this guy, we aren’t giving him coverage.” This Indy 500 was all Alonso.

On Thursday, he was surrounded by a five-deep group of reporters for a solid hour during Indy 500 media day. After awhile, that kind of environment would get claustrophobic or irritating for even the best of us.

But Alonso answered all the questions — even if the question was a repeat — and was cool throughout the process. The time he gave was impressive for someone of his stature (and was a lot more of a commitment than the weekly F1 press conferences).

And despite hogging the attention leading into the race, Alonso charmed the heck out of everyone — fellow drivers and Indiana fans included — and left everyone wanting more. Fans greeted him with loud cheers before the race and a standing ovation after it.

“Thanks to IndyCar — amazing experience,” Alonso said. “Thanks to Indianapolis. Thanks to the fans. I felt at home. I’m not American, but I felt really proud to race here.”

Alonso could have come to Indy and been selfish about the opportunity. But he wasn’t. He gave as much as he received. He showed respect to everyone and acted with class throughout the process.

At the end of Sunday’s post-race media session, the moderator dismissed Alonso. He was free to go.

“Last thing,” Alonso said.

He pulled out a small carton of milk and raised it as a toast.

“Thank you to all the media,” he said. “I didn’t win, but I will drink a little bit of milk. You followed me for two weeks — every single minute — but I really enjoyed (it).

“Thanks for the welcoming.”

We can only hope he decides to come back soon.