CAN KIMBALL START 2 FOR 2? – One of the quieter drivers at St. Pete last week was Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing's Charlie Kimball, who continued his maturation with a clean run, a handful of on-track passes and an eventual ninth place result from 22nd on the grid – also best of the non-Leaders Circle entries. Barber was the site of Kimball's first career top 10 finish a year ago, 10th from a near similar 21st starting position.
He's an outside contender to do well because he posted his strongest outright performances at natural road courses a year ago. At Mid-Ohio, Kimball qualified 10th and finished 11th, while at Motegi, he qualified a career-best seventh and was on course for a potential top-five result before being caught up in the accident when his teammate Dario Franchitti tapped several drivers into a spin. A second straight top-10 would do wonders for the affable young Californian in improving his confidence and showing he remains worthy of a CGR seat.
NBC SPORTS NETWORK'S DEBUT – The name is new but the hope is the coverage stays as good as it was, or improves, for the newly rebranded NBC Sports Network – the network formerly known as Versus.
While everyone within NBCSN and the series are keen to have the Versus network name be banished as much as “IRL” from the vernacular, the non-network word “versus” will still be fully in play for the broadcast network's crew.
First, to see if NBCSN can do a better job of presenting the race as it evolves – not missing passes, not being keyed in on only a handful of drivers, along with the necessary but not overdone storylines, versus ABC's widely panned presentation a week ago.
Secondly, how will pit reporting rookie Townsend Bell (RIGHT) compare versus Lindy Thackston? Twitter largely erupted in outburst when it was announced Thackston was not renewed for a fourth season, but it would be completely unfair to throw Bell under the bus before he even gets a chance.
NBCSN has made, in this writer's eyes, a smart decision in providing Bell this opportunity. He's got the most relevant technical analysis of the current IndyCars, as he drove the previous generation Dallara for parts of six seasons, compared to Jon Beekhuis and Wally Dallenbach Jr.'s sporadic late-1980s, early-1990s CART appearances.
Additionally, Bell isn't a raw TV commentator void of experience, as say, a Brienne Pedigo was during her ESPN/ABC tenure. Bell filled in admirably on occasion for several Formula 1 races, usually the Canadian Grand Prix when it directly conflicted with the 24 Hours of Le Mans. His technical perspective having driven in Indy Lights (first iteration), CART, Formula 3000, IndyCar, and now the ALMS (he won his sports car debut at Sebring in the GTC class) is largely unmatched, and should be great for insight this weekend.
Now of course, Bell's been an analyst, not a pit reporter; several, Beekhuis included, have made the step from the pits to the booth, not the other way around. But I have enough faith Bell can pick up most of the intricacies of how to handle the pits and cover the cars he needs to.
None of that is meant as a slight on Thackston, who I thought was an above-average asset to the coverage. For those missing Thackston, don't worry – she still has an IndyCar presence operating the social media platforms for Ed Carpenter Racing.
One other key debut for NBCSN this weekend is the premiere of its “INDYCAR 36” behind the scenes show, this week featuring Tony Kanaan. Camera crews followed TK throughout the St. Petersburg weekend.The half-hour show airs at 1:30pm ET on Sunday.
The booth crew of Bob Jenkins, Beekhuis and Dallenbach remains intact, with pit reporters Bell, Marty Snider, Kevin Lee and roving reporter Robin Miller on air for qualifying at 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday and the race at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday. No word on whether Miller's popular “Grid run” segment will reappear…
• The IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama airs on NBC Sports Network live Sunday at 2 p.m. Eastern.