LONG POND, Pa. – Considering how dangerously close he came to seeing his racing career, or worse, end on an oval, hearing Mikhail Aleshin profess his love for the circular tracks strikes as odd.
But that’s just what the focused Russian driver did after wrapping up pole position for today’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Aleshin will lead the field to the green flag in what’s slated to be the 13th completed race on this year 16-race Verizon IndyCar Series schedule (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
CLICK HERE: ABC Supply 500 starting lineup
It comes almost exactly two years from when the 29-year-old Moscow native sustained serious injuries – including a chest injury, broken right clavicle, fracture ribs and concussion – in a frightening crash during practice Aug. 29, 2014, prior to the season finale at Auto Club Speedway. Normal humans would shy away from tempting such fate again.
But Aleshin and the rest of his Verizon IndyCar Series drivers aren’t your normal batch of human beings. So when asked Saturday following qualifying why he is excelling on superspeedways in particular in what is his second full season in the series, the response was simple.
“I just love it,” Aleshin said. “I heard some of my colleagues from Europe that came over here and tried INDYCAR, they told me that I was going to hate the ovals because it's just a completely different thing, completely different idea compared to what you normally do in Europe.
“But obviously I came over here. The first time I tried, it was a test (at Homestead-Miami Speedway in January 2014). Actually, I loved it straight away. I felt that it's just so interesting.”
Aleshin had qualified eighth for the 2014 Auto Club Speedway event, but didn’t race due to the injuries sustained in the crash. He missed all of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series except the season finale at Sonoma Raceway, due more to financial restrictions with his Russian sponsor SMP Racing than any residual effects of the crash. He did compete in five European Le Mans Series events, helping develop the BR01 chassis in LMP2 competition.
But he longed for a return to Indy cars and was given a second chance when he re-signed with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for 2016. Driving the No. 7 Honda, Aleshin impressed by qualifying seventh for the Indianapolis 500 and ninth at Iowa Speedway. Ovals are becoming his calling card.
“It's very intense racing, you know, on the ovals,” he said. “You need to think like two times faster than on normal tracks because you're just going a lot faster. That's definitely what the racing should feel like.”
Aleshin finished seventh in his only previous Pocono race, in 2014. The sights are much higher for today.
“The key of the success in 2014 – I wouldn't call P7 success – but it was not too bad for first time (at Pocono) and first year on the ovals,” Aleshin stated in his typical blunt way. “So the key there was that the car was pretty good. When you're driving the oval and the car is good, it's much easier than opposite.
“On the road course or street course, if something is not good in the balance, you can live with it. On the oval, if something is not good in the balance or if something is wrong, then it's just a disaster. Let's see what (the race) brings. But if we are going to have a good car, we're going to be very competitive, that's for sure.”
Race notes: Eighteen drivers remain mathematically eligible to win the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship heading into today’s race. Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, who starts 14th in the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet, is in first place, 58 points ahead of teammate Will Power, who starts eighth in the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. Drivers within 212 points of the lead following today’s race remain alive in the title hunt heading to the completion of the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on Aug. 27.
ABC Supply 500 fast facts:
Track: Pocono Raceway, a 2.5-mile triangular oval in Long Pond, Pa.
Race distance: 200 laps / 500 miles
Fuel: 130 gallons of Sunoco E85R ethanol
Pit window: 25-28 laps