For Power and Hunter-Reay, Indy win would give careers a greater boost

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They’re the two drivers who battled down to the wire for last year’s IZOD IndyCar Series championship. One’s come out firing to start 2013, and the other has been struck by bad luck in three of four races.

Yet going into tomorrow’s 97th running of the Indianapolis 500, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power (pictured) are almost entirely under-the-radar. Something about that is not quite right.

Hunter-Reay’s comeback to capture his first title a year ago didn’t generate near the buzz on the national level that it could have. Meanwhile Power, long regarded as IndyCar’s master of the road and street course domain, has had results this year that are hardly Penske material (only one top-15 finish in four races).

They start sixth and seventh – Power ahead of Hunter-Reay – and while neither is really a favorite, they are both due a good result at Indianapolis after struggling since both of their rookie years. They both know the magnitude of what a win tomorrow could do for either of their careers.

“You can’t put a price tag on it,” Hunter-Reay said during media day on Thursday. “You grow up watching and discover this is where heroes are made. The guy who wins might as well have a ‘Superman’ cape on.”

Power added about winning here, “I think it’ll always be big. I just think it becomes a tradition for people to come here. It’s more than about the race. People come here to have a good time.”

In Friday’s final practice, Hunter-Reay was third fastest and Power was 15th. Hunter-Reay has collaborated with the rest of the Andretti Autosport team to simulate race runs with all five of their cars. It sounds easy on paper, but actually pulling it off has been more challenging than expected.

“It sounds easy but getting five different programs together at once, at the same time, is so hard,” Hunter-Reay admitted. “Everyone always has different agendas, and people are all over the board. That has really helped us.”

Power feels confident in the grip levels on a cooler track for race day, as ambient temperatures are projected in the mid-to-high 60s. The last few years, the race has been in the 90s.

“You’re just adjusting to be as it was when it hot,” Power said. “You adjust to keep the consistent downforce level. The cooler it is, the thicker the air, the more it sucks to the ground and it gets more grip.”

Keys to success on Sunday include placing yourself in the right spot at the right time, and playing the tow effect to the maximum.

“There should be a massive tow, because these cars punch a huge hole in the air,” Hunter-Reay said. “Nobody can break away. I don’t foresee a guy taking off in the distance.”

Power, more succinctly, says at this stage of the month, you know what you have and have to take it from there.

“You know what you’ve got at this point for sure because you’ve been running all month,” he said. “I guess you base your confidence at this time on that.”

Red Bull rising into the form expected when the season began

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Young “Mad Max” Verstappen had plenty to be angry about for the first half of the Formula One season. After his breakout season in 2016, this year had been little more than a rash of retirements, crashes and clashes with other drivers.

But a late burst over the last two races delivered his second career victory and a second-place. Those results have Red Bull rising and looking more like the fast and muscular team it was expected to be.

Verstappen and teammate Daniel Ricciardo now look primed to keep pushing for the front over the final four races of 2017, starting this week at the U.S. Grand Prix. Do that and the prospects for a 2018 title fight grow brighter.

“We’re definitely going the way we need to be going,” Ricciardo said. “If we start on the front foot, I genuinely believe we can fight for the title if we start closer. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

Verstappen’s win in Malaysia demonstrated a perfect marriage of the young Dutchman’s driving skill and his improving car when he beat Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton with a head-to-head pass early. He was on the podium again a week later in Japan. The champagne spray at both races was a tasty but dry reminder that Red Bull wanted – and expected – so much more this season.

While Ricciardo has been a workhorse with nine podiums and one victory, Verstappen’s season was crippled by reliability issues with his car or crashes.

“There were so many races this year when he was in a fantastic position to achieve big results,” team principal Christian Horner said this week. “Credit to him that at such a young age he hasn’t let frustration boil over … when it comes right for him, it’s going to come right in a big way. And that’s exactly what happened in Malaysia. He drove a great race there, with no issues.”

Some of the “issues” created internal tension.

The first lap of the Hungarian Grand Prix was a disaster for Red Bull. Verstappen tried to overtake Ricciardo and hit him, knocking Ricciardo out of the race while Verstappen finished fifth. Ricciardo lashed out at Verstappen as “immature” and criticized the “amateur” maneuver.

Verstappen said he can’t think about what happened early in the season.

“That frustration I put behind me,” Verstappen said. “It happened. You can’t change it anymore. You’re just happy that it’s going well again and we had some good results.”

Ricciardo has carried Red Bull to the podium time and again but his broad smile hasn’t beamed from the top spot since Azerbaijan in June. Despite his run of strong finishes, he’s stuck at fourth in the driver’s standings and needs a boost to overtake Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas for third.

The Circuit of the Americas has been good for both Red Bull drivers in the past. Ricciardo finished third here in 2014 and 2016. Verstappen had an attention-getting drive in 2015 when he finished fourth in his Toro Rosso after sloshing his way through the field on a wet track.

Verstappen had a wild race in 2016 when he challenged for the lead early, came in for a pit stop when the crew wasn’t ready and yelled to his garage: “I’m not here to finish fourth!” He didn’t finish at all when his car was knocked out with a gearbox problem on lap 32.

Verstappen was 17 when he joined the F1 grid as the youngest driver in series history and he still jokes about his age. Austin is known for its live music and nightlife, but he’s limited as to how much he can party away from the track.

“I’m only 20. I can’t drink,” Verstappen said. “If I’m on the podium (Sunday) I won’t care.”