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Mazda Road to Indy

EMBURY: Indianapolis 500 Advancement On The Line?

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Remember the original edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Now recall when meek Charlie Bucket realizes he has found the last golden ticket.

Yours truly is not going to sing and dance a-la Charlie and Grandpa Joe, yet a lot is on the table for whoever takes the checkered flag first in Friday’s Freedom 100. The pinnacle event on the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship has often opened the window of opportunity to a future shot at the Indianapolis 500.

Nowhere was this proven more so than in the inaugural running of the support race in 2003. Starting from pole position, Indianapolis’s own Ed Carpenter led all but one of the event’s forty laps to take the historic triumph. Duesenberg Brothers Racing’s Jeff Simmons charged late to finish second, while Panther Racing’s Mark Taylor came home in third

Although no one could have predicted it at the time, but all three podium drivers would take three of the 33 spots in the 2004 Indy 500. A collision between Carpenter and Taylor at the 200-mile mark ultimately allowed Simmons to earn the best result of the trio in that edition, placing 11th.

In fact, each of the first five winners of the sprint race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway eventually qualified for the big dance, with the most notable being Wade Cunningham, the only competitor to date to win the Freedom 100 more than once.

Including Carpenter, three other P1 catchers will be on the main straightaway waiting for Mari Hulman George’s command to start engines. Josef Newgarden comes into Sunday’s race after earning third-place in 2016. Gabby Chaves used his 2014 100-mile race success, to snag Rookie of the Race honors in the Indy 500 two years ago. And after winning the Indy Lights’ big race in 2015, Jack Harvey makes his debut in the Memorial Day battle on May 28th.

So who could join these graduates in 2017? While defending champion Dean Stoneman was unsuccessful in taking a ride for the Indy 500 this month, there is another driver who was also in the running for a spot that could be the favorite to win the 2017 Freedom 100.

Following the announcement of Juncos Racing’s participation in this year’s race, it was believed that their Indy Lights regular Kyle Kaiser would be one of the chauffeurs. The 21-year old from California placed third on last year’s points table with two wins. 2017 has continued the wave of momentum for the prospect; he enters Friday’s event as the championship leader and is the most recent winner taking the second leg of the Liberty Challenge on the  Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. With Ricardo Juncos attempting to promote his team to the Verizon IndyCar Series full-time in 2018, the Freedom 100 could be the boost required to earn the title and the bump up funding a ride next season.

Nico Jamin and Colton Herta are also possibilities from the Andretti Autosport junior squad. Both enter Friday on the heels of Kaiser with each taking a pair of victories in 2017. The French-based Jamin  has been a winning machine, earning successes in IMSA Prototype Challenge and Pirelli World Challenge action this year as well. Herta would join a long line of sons following their fathers into the Indy 500. Colton’s dad Bryan scored two top-fives at the Brickyard, and has won the big one twice as an owner.

Regardless of who joins the victory list on Friday, the chances are good that someone could fire it up against the big guys in the future.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

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Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad. A major follower of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Matt has attended six previous Indianapolis 500s and rates Tony Kanaan's long awaited victory in the 2013 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as his favorite memory. Outside of following auto racing, Matt is an avid fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish athletics program and can often be seen at home games throughout the season or running the audio controls on several ND-related radio programs. A native of Springboro, Ohio, Matt now resides in Mishawaka, Indiana.