Sole focus on Indy Lights likely for Munoz the rest of 2013

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For the moment, the 2013 Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year Carlos Munoz is focusing exclusively on Firestone Indy Lights, and winning that championship. It’s doubtful at the moment the Andretti Autosport driver will make any additional IndyCar starts this year.

“We have the same conclusion as everyone: that the main goal is the championship of Indy Lights,” Munoz said Tuesday in a teleconference. “The team needs it, I need it, because the prize that Indy Lights gives you is quite important for the next year and everything.

“I need to have a championship. Also to have a championship also is motivate you for the mind mentally to move up,” he added. “For the team, Michael, the whole Andretti team, everybody wants to win this championship in Indy Lights because it’s been a lot of year without winning it. So they really think they have a shot to do it and they want me to win the championship, and focus next year on a full-time season in IndyCar.”

Munoz’s second season has been an improvement from his first.

“We prefer to do a really good season, with the pre-season test, good testing and everything. It’s racing. When you are with a good team, you have to go out and win. You don’t have the excuse the car was good. This is racing, so since the beginning you have to be really strong, no?”

In years past, Andretti has rolled out an extra car toward the end of the season to complement their full-season roster of drivers. Franck Montagny (2009, Sonoma), Adam Carroll (2010, Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio), and Sebastian Saavedra (2012, Sonoma and Fontana), have all raced a jointly-entered AFS/Andretti Autosport car with the support of Gary Peterson.

“We’re trying to work for Sonoma, but I don’t think it will happen,” said Munoz. “They want me really to concentrate on the Indy Lights. All the races Michael say, ‘Concentrate, concentrate Indy Lights.’ That’s what I’m doing now.”

Munoz is locked in a tight battle with Sage Karam for the Lights title. Karam’s back-to-back wins for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at Milwaukee and Iowa vaulted him into the championship lead, but Munoz now heads the American rookie by four points (285-281).

Counting Toronto this weekend, just five races remain in the Indy Lights season. The field grows back to nine with Matthew Di Leo, an 18-year-old owner/driver of Innisfil, Ontario, making his second start of 2013 (Long Beach).

Teammates James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens earn top-fives at Barber

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For the first time this season, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates James Hinchcilffe and Robert Wickens earned top-five finishes in the same race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

Hinchcliffe finished third in the Grand Prix of Alabama; Wickens was one spot behind in fourth.

Wickens had one previous podium at Phoenix with his second-place finish. Hinchcliffe’s best result was a fourth in the season-opener in St Petersburg, Fla., so this marked his first podium of the year.

Both drivers needed a little help from the rain.

As precipitation began to fall in the closing stages of the race, Hinchliffe asked his team on a couple of occasions if it was wet enough to pit for rain tires. He was told twice to stay out and was then called into to the pits at the optimal time.

“Solid weekend for us after coming here before – not a great test,” Hinchcliffe said. “Two cars in the top 10 qualifying; two cars, top five in the race. Pretty proud of these boys, everybody on the Arrow car.”

The rain helped Wickens’ race strategy come together.

“I was having to save a lot of fuel in that second stint,” Wickens said. “So once (Scott) Dixon starting getting close to me I was thinking ‘Oh God, I’m going to actually have to give this one up.’ And then the rain came, so the fuel mileage happened naturally. So, yeah, it saved us a bit.”

And while both were pleased with their top-five finishes, drivers are rarely satisfied unless they are standing on the top step of the podium.

Wickens’ top-five finish was hard-fought. After winning the pole at St Petersburg and starting sixth at Phoenix, he failed to advance to the Fast 6 in back-to-back races at Long Beach and Barber – qualifying 10th both times.

“I was a little gutted that we came out in a big bunch of traffic,” Wickens continued. “It made the race fun, but a little frustrating as well because of people off sequence and whatnot. We lost a lot of track position there. Both of us could have been fighting for higher steps on the podium, but we need to do a little better job in qualifying. “