By Justin Whitaker
SPEEDWAY — Indianapolis 500 race winner Tony Kanaan was not the only driver whom had a good Sunday.
The four rookies in the 33-car field exceeded many’s expectations and showed few signs of first-timers. Carlos Muñoz (second), AJ Allmendinger (seventh), Tristan Vautier (16th) and Conor Daly (22nd) each ended with solid showings in their first Indy 500.
21-year-old Muñoz especially impressed in his 500 debut, let alone first IZOD IndyCar Series race.
The Columbian started and finished second, led 12 laps and was the highest finishing car of the strong five-car Andretti Autosport team.
The driver of the No. 26 Unistraw Chevrolet was a threat to win late and was disappointed with how the race ended.
With Muñoz in third and three laps to go, a Dario Franchitti wreck in Turn 1 brought out the race-ending caution. The late yellow flag prevented what most likely would have been a frantic finish on a day where there were a record-breaking 68 lead changes.
“I really wanted to fight for the win,” Muñoz said. “Maybe I could win, maybe not, but I really wanted to fight. I have nothing be ashamed of. To be second and a rookie and the best of the team is a great job.”
Muñoz was directly behind eventual race winner Kanaan before what was the final restart. Kanaan, who was second on that restart, was well aware of the young gun directly behind.
“He was going to learn a lot in the last two laps, I can tell you that,” Kanaan said laughing. “He was going to love this place, but he was going to have to come back.”
Kanaan said the pair have a good relationship away from IndyCar as they hang out and race go-karts together in Miami. Muñoz has a profound amount of respect for the Brazilian and learned from watching him win The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
“I learn a lot from him, how was he timing it and everything,” Muñoz said. “I put this in practice and I start to get stronger and stronger.”
Muñoz is the current Firestone Indy Lights points leader, a developmental feeder series for the IZOD IndyCar Series. After an impressive first Indy 500, Muñoz was asked if he would talk to his team owner, Michael Andretti, about continuing the rest of the season in the top open wheel series.
“It’s up to him,” Muñoz said. “I have to do my job. My job, I’m still Indy Lights championship leader. This was my main goal since I start the year. This was one race more to have more experience and it came out really good, I think more than expected.”
Allmendinger was only a rookie in the sense of the word as the accomplished driver competed in his first Indianapolis 500. The 31-year-old won five races in the now defunct Champ Car Series and is a seven-year NASCAR Sprint Cup Series veteran.
After Sunday’s race, Allmendinger became the fifth driver in history to lead laps in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400. He joins a racing club that includes Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Robby Gordon and John Andretti.
Even for an experienced driver, starting the Indianapolis 500 for the first time frayed his nerves.
“The first issue was I was sissy on the start,” Allmendinger said. “That might have been the worst Indy 500 start ever. I went from like fifth to 20th in one lap. I’ll be ready next time. After that, it took me about 40 laps to settle down.”
As the No. 2 IZOD Team Penske Chevrolet shuffled back to the middle of the field, the rev limiter was being hit in sixth gear. After the team straightened the engine out, Allmendinger shot through the field.
He led for the first time on Lap 98 and led at halfway point of the race.
“Once I figured it out, the IZOD Chevy was just a missile,” Allmendinger said. “It was almost too easy at times just to go by the guys. It was probably the coolest feeling in my life to take the lead at Indy and lead the Indy 500. That’s a feeling I’ll never forget.”
The Los Gatos, Calif. native led 23 laps on the day and while leading he literally almost came out of his seat.
“I went down into Turn 1, it was 130 laps in, so it wasn’t like they were loose or anything and it just popped out,” Allmendinger said of his safety belt. “Maybe it was because my heart was beating too hard from leading the race, but it came undone.”
The crew fixed the loose right belt crotch on a pit stop but it knocked the team off the same pit sequence as the rest of the leaders.
Allmendinger bounced back up front and led with 35 laps to go. He was a top contender but the team’s final pit stop was just a tad longer because of the extra fuel his car needed.
“That last stop, we barely got into our pit window,” Allmendinger said. “The pit stop was long just for the mere fact we had to get it completely full of fuel while all of those guys had a little bit shorter stops.”
Vautier, from France, completed all 200 laps in the No. 55 Lucas Oil/Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. While never contending for the win, it was a steady showing in the 23-year-old’s IndyCar debut at IMS.
“I finished my first Indy 500 so I’m very happy,” Vautier said. “Big thanks to my team. All of the pit stops were perfect.”
Noblesville native Daly finished his first Indy 500 two laps down but battled through adversity. The 21-year-old lost his rear brakes on the first pit stop but fought to finish 22nd, nine positions better than his starting position.
“After catching on fire twice and having no rear brakes, I think we did OK,” Daly said. “This race is awesome. To finish 22nd after starting 31st, I’m pretty happy with that.”