Marco Andretti due for big weekend at Barber

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I’ll take the blame if this turns into a jinx, but I’m expecting big things from Marco Andretti at Barber Motorsports Park this weekend.

Andretti’s consistently been the thorn in the Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing side at the three prior IndyCar races at Barber, even if his final results haven’t shown it.

He led a race-high 58 laps at Barber in 2010 and was unlucky to only finish fifth after qualifying fourth. He followed that with a ninth-to-fourth run in 2011, and was on pace for another top five finish a year ago before his tires faded in the final stint and he dropped to an unrepresentative 11th-place finish.

Andretti has altered his driving style for road and street courses this year to be less aggressive, and not over-driving the corners, but still able to save the tires early enough in a stint to save them toward the end.

It paid dividends at St. Petersburg as Andretti pounced in the final stages to secure a podium finish in third place once Simona de Silvestro’s tires fell off in the dying laps.

“It’s all confidence, confidence with your engineers, but also confidence, your guys need to have that in you,” Andretti said after the race. “Obviously I finished better than wherever the heck I was last year. Hopefully we can be part of this snowball effect that people speak of and we can just keep clicking off a lot of great results.

“Obviously I’ve made my improvements where I need to improve, but sometimes you don’t know why they come. You just got to keep working hard and hopefully it can snowball.”

Andretti did not make a single Firestone Fast Six in 2012, but if the pace is similar to what he has produced at Barber in the past, and as quick as the Andretti Autosport contingent was at St. Petersburg, I think he’ll break through this Saturday. A second straight podium or perhaps his first win on a road or street course since his first at Sonoma in 2006 would not totally surprise, either.

Hamilton leads damp first USGP practice at COTA, Hartley debuts

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Lewis Hamilton continued his impressive Formula 1 record at the Circuit of The Americas by topping opening practice for the United States Grand Prix on Friday for Mercedes.

A four-time winner of the USGP at COTA, Hamilton set the pace in damp conditions in first practice after rain hit the Austin area in the lead-up to the start of the session.

After initially venturing out on intermediate tires, Hamilton made the switch to super-softs at the halfway point in FP1, ultimately posting a fastest time of 1:36.335.

Hamilton’s time saw him finish over half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who he could beat to the F1 drivers’ championship at COTA this weekend should results go his way.

Mercedes got two cars into the top three as Valtteri Bottas wound up third in the second W08 car, six-tenths back from Hamilton, while Max Verstappen ended FP1 fourth for Red Bull.

Felipe Massa led Williams into the top 10 with an impressive lap en route to fifth, finishing ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne.

Vandoorne was left to lead McLaren’s charge after a hydraulic leak sidelined Fernando Alonso for much of the session, limiting the Spaniard to just four laps in total.

Force India managed to get both its drivers up into the top 10 as Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez finished eighth and ninth respectively, edging out Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr. who was P10 in his first appearance for the team.

Brendon Hartley enjoyed his first run-out in Toro Rosso’s STR12 car ahead of his grand prix debut on Sunday, taking P14 overall.

The New Zealander had not driven an F1 car since a test with Mercedes in 2012, but put in a solid first display in practice, even though his race hopes are set to be hindered by a grid penalty.

Second practice for the United States Grand Prix is live on the NBC Sports app from 3pm ET today.