STEAM CORNERS, Ohio -- While we've been sitting around waiting and hoping that Marco Andretti or Graham Rahal turns into the next American Indy car star, Charlie Kimball has suddenly put himself into the conversation.
Best known as the guy who races with diabetes or as Chip Ganassi's oft-forgotten third driver, Kimball ran away from the IZOD IndyCar Series field in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to claim his first Indy car race win.
The 27-year-old Californian took advantage of an aggressive three-stop strategy and had the pace to back it up in a caution-free race as he crossed the line 5.53 seconds ahead of Simon Pagenaud.
On a picture-perfect day that brought out Mid-Ohio's biggest Indy car crowd in years, Kimball outclassed his decorated Ganassi teammates Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, who finished third and seventh, respectively, 28 and 48 seconds in arrears.
Dixon, who is locked in a championship battle with Helio Castroneves, played the conservative route by following the same fuel-saving two-stop strategy as early leaders Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power.
From the start, Kimball and his crew had decided to take a more aggressive approach to the 90-lap race. When there were no early yellows, they committed to a three-stop strategy, rather than trying to stretch fuel loads to Laps 30 and 60.
After holding fourth place behind Hunter-Reay, Power and Dixon in the early stages, Kimball pitted for the first time on Lap 19. He lost track position, but on a clear track, he immediately started running faster than he had in the queue.
When Hunter-Reay and Co. pitted as scheduled on Lap 30, Kimball assumed the lead and began pulling away. He pitted again on Lap 42, and by that time, Franchitti's crew figured out that, barring yellows, the three-stop strategy was going to win out. They switched Dario to a three-stopper, but the damage had already been done and the race came down to a battle between Pagenaud and Kimball.
"Charlie's guys called it just right," Franchitti observed. "We were always on a split strategy, but the No. 83 team got it exactly perfect and we reacted a bit too late.
"They called the strategy right, but Charlie also drove a cracking race, a really good race, so hats off to him."
It was a dramatic conclusion to a hectic weekend for Kimball. He crashed heavily at Mid-Ohio's daunting first turn during Saturday morning practice, yet bounced back to qualify a career-best fifth.
To earn the win, Kimball had to overcome a stern challenge from Pagenaud, who actually exited the pits in the lead on the 73rd lap. Kimball had made his third and final stop a lap earlier, and he used his warmed-up tires to make a forceful pass on Pagenaud into Turn 4.
From there, he pulled away steadily to the finish.
"I never thought Charlie would make that move, to be honest," Pagenaud said. "He made it stick, so hats off. It's well deserved when you make such a move and it works.
"I'm disappointed we weren't able to score another win, but congratulations to him for doing such a good job."
Team owner Ganassi was so excited by Kimball's breakthrough win that he took a header, falling from the pit wall as his driver crossed the line.
"I was trying to throw my hat across the start/finish line and I fell off the wall," Ganassi said. "Unbelievable.
"I don't care, I'll take it," he added. "The kid won his first race, and that's huge."
Not many would have predicted Kimball would win a race this year, before pedigreed stars Rahal and Andretti did. Since joining the Ganassi organization in 2011, Kimball often has been thought of as a competent but not spectacular driver who got the coveted seat by delivering a generous sponsorship package from Novo Nordisk, a medical supplier that specializes in diabetes care.
It's no coincidence that a driver with diabetes was able to connect with a sponsor dedicated to caring for the disease. Kimball is walking, racing testimony to the effectiveness of Novo Nordisk's NovoLog FlexPen insulin delivery system.
But because he delivered a sponsor to a major team, Kimball was pigeonholed as a ride buyer, when in truth 70 percent of the rides in all forms of major auto racing are locked up the same way. The difference -- in Indy car racing, at least -- is that Kimball is the rare American driver who put in the kind of effort in landing a sponsor normally associated with Europeans or South Americans.
Although he never won a race in two years of Indy Lights, Kimball was a race winner in European Formula 3 (an extreme rarity for an American) and he has made steady progress in his three years of Indy car racing.
— Charlie Kimball (@racewithinsulin) August 5, 2013
He pulled off a two-car pass at Toronto last year on his way to a then-career-best second place that still has people talking, and his pass for the lead Sunday on Pagenaud was no less authoritative.
The guy has more than paid his dues, and that's why his victory at Mid-Ohio was so popular with fans and within the IndyCar paddock.
"He's learning quickly," observed teammate Franchitti, a four-time IndyCar Series champion. "He's a smart guy, and bit by bit, you see him get rid of his weaknesses. He's taken full advantage of the fact that he's a member of the Ganassi team and all the stuff that he's got available to him, whether it's experience or the engineering group or equipment at his disposal.
"I just thought this weekend, he's driven fantastically. Full marks to him."
Meanwhile, Kimball simply says he's right on schedule, exactly where he expected to be at this point, 45 races into his Indy car career.
"It's right on the time frame that Chip laid out for us," Kimball said. "We had a clear understanding going into the first year that it was to sort of figure it out, see if the program was going to work. And with the expansion of the program, we knew that this was going to be the year to start winning and start putting the results on the board and start getting inside the top 10 in points.
"To be able to validate those sort of trajectories has been really nice. Getting a win quiets a lot of voices, for sure, especially voices within myself as a driver. So to be able to come out and validate it to ourselves is a good thing and I think it builds momentum for not just the rest of the season, but, you know, the next few years."
The IndyCar championship battle was almost a footnote to Kimball's first win in the series. By finishing sixth, directly ahead of Dixon, Castroneves extended his lead to 31 points, with five races remaining.
Speaking of American stars, defending series champion Hunter-Reay led the first 30 laps from pole position and finished fifth to close to within 65 points of Castroneves.
"We picked the wrong strategy today," Hunter-Reay said. "If we had one yellow in there it would have been our race.
"It's frustrating; things just aren't falling into place right now."