MILLER: No cheering in the press box. Except...

Image by LAT

MILLER: No cheering in the press box. Except...

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MILLER: No cheering in the press box. Except...

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One of the first lessons anyone in sports journalism learns is that there is no cheering in the press box. This is supposed to be an objective exercise in reporting with no emotional attachment. And the longer you do it and the older you get, the less you care about who wins a game or a race.

Sure, it was cool to see Josef Newgarden take that first one for Sarah Fisher and Ed Carpenter back in 2015, and James Hinchcliffe claim the pole at Indy in 2016 after his near-death experience the year before, and watching teenage Colton Herta become the youngest winner ever last month was surely worthy of respectful applause from the Fourth Estate.

But I’ll confess that last May I was silently cheering my ass off for Carpenter when he was leading the Indianapolis 500. The little local team from Indy with its USAC-bred driver/owner and small budget was taking it to Penske, Andretti and Ganassi, and it wasn’t just a feel-good story, it was damn impressive.

The kid who grew up in the shadow of Gasoline Alley was dictating the pace of the race, and for 65 laps he showed his heels to everyone. In the end, though, Will Power’s pit stops were was just a skosh better, and the Aussie beat EC by three seconds to the checkered flag.

Power was a deserving winner whose gonzo reaction reflected the importance of that victory, but I was gutted for what we would have termed a great upset.
Except… the more I think about it, it really wouldn’t have been an upset, if we consider it rationally. Because Ed Carpenter isn’t an underdog at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway anymore. Hell, he’s almost the favorite.

“Whether we’re the underdog or the favorite doesn’t matter to me; our expectations are to be a factor,” said the three-time pole-sitter. “I don’t make opinions, I just do my job; and it’s great to win poles but it’s definitely not my purpose in going there. I’m there to win the race.”

Carpenter qualified 16th for his Indy 500 debut in 2004. Image by Williams/LAT

Team manager Tim Broyles, one of the 13 originals still working with Ed Carpenter Racing, doesn’t necessarily buy into the favorite role. “I don’t know how you can say anyone is the favorite; there are so many things that can happen at Indy,” he said. “A lot of us think that there’s nobody better there than Ed, but we just haven’t put it all together yet. What he does to go quick; sometimes it’s hard to watch the telemetry, because it’s nerve-racking. But he’s got such a good feel for that place.”

In the past six years, only Ryan Hunter-Reay has led more laps than the 38-year-old veteran (163 to 133) who cut his teeth on USAC midgets, sprints and Silver Crown cars before making his IndyCar debut in 2003.

Carpenter has won IndyCar races at Texas, Fontana and Kentucky but obviously has a special feel for the track his stepfather, Tony George, once operated when he started Vision Racing in 2005.

“I think it’s is more of a rhythm track than people think, and going back with A.J. [Foyt] and [Eddie] Cheever, when I started, gave me a great opportunity to work with ton of experience, which helped give me some fundamental principles,” he replied when asked why he was so good at 16th & Georgetown.

“It’s such a finicky place. You really have to understand what you need, and I feel like I can make right decisions and stay on top of things. Plus we’ve had a lot of continuity, [same as] teams like Penske and Ganassi. And not having a ton of change really helps. Tim, Woody, Matt, Brad, Jimmy, Jay… we’ve had 13 guys with us from the very beginning, and that’s so important.”

When practice opens tomorrow for the 103rd Indianapolis 500, ECR will be in familiar surroundings, fielding three cars this year for Ed Jones, Spencer Pigot and Carpenter. Last year, all three ECR entries qualified in the Fast 9 (Danica Patrick, Pigot and Ed), and everyone was shocked when McLaren didn’t partner up with Carpenter for this month. But the boss isn’t interested in helping a two-time world champion get to Victory Lane; that’s his primary goal.

And Ed doesn’t dwell on last year, figuring it was only the second-best shot he’s had to win the “greatest spectacle in racing.”

Carpenter believes 2014 was his best shot at an Indy 500 victory, but his race ended with his Chevy pinned against the Turn 1 SAFER barrier. Image by Williams/LAT

“To be honest, I think maybe 2014 was better – the year James [Hinchcliffe] and I crashed – and that’s why I was so upset, because I wasn’t trying to lead; I was just hanging out and biding my time.

“I think we led the most laps in 2013, but I got shuffled back in traffic and wasn’t good enough to come back through.

“The good and bad last year is that we didn’t win, but we also executed really well. We had good pit stops; those guys (Penske) were just a little bit better. Nothing glaring that took the win away from us and a lot of other days it would have been enough.

“It was disappointing, for sure, but I was proud of it. We just need to be a little bit better. It’s just not a race you want to finish second in.”

Spoken like a true favorite, not an underdog.

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