Marco Andretti

Luck, qualifying gains could fuel a Marco Andretti title challenge

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Like Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti is nearly a decade into his top-level open-wheel career, yet has not entered the prime of it.

To chronicle Andretti’s, now 27, career arc, it goes a little something like this:

A breakout rookie campaign at 19 in 2006 features the near-win on debut at the Indianapolis 500 and his first actual win at Sonoma. In 2007, it was a pair of flips (Indy and Mid-Ohio), occasional highlights but frequent frustration. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, same story, but he axed the flips.

The 2011 season was a comeback, with an authoritative drive to his second career win in Iowa. But in 2012 it was a trying, forgettable campaign featuring only three top-10 finishes from 15 starts, and a career-low 16th in points.

In 2013, the comeback, part two. A career-high fifth in points, best of Andretti Autosport’s four cars, with results consistency and a renewed focus after an offseason soul search that saw him transform his game following work with a driver coach.

So which Marco Andretti shows up in 2014? It stands a good chance of being the close-to-finished article.

Save for the last two years, Andretti finished seventh or eighth in points five of his first six seasons. He knows how bad the low can be, after the disaster of 2012. And while there were highs in 2013, the misses – the losses at Milwaukee and Pocono – stick out like a sore thumb.

Andretti made huge gains in 2013, and is primed to make even more in 2014.

“I think ’13 was a good start to the direction I wanted to go,” he said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “We confirmed a lot of my work is in the right direction anyway. We just need to keep plugging away with that, and we have.

“I think I made gains since. I’m more confident going into ’14 than I was ’13. I was pleased with my consistency. But some of my best results of last year were on the street courses, which is where I was struggling.

“But I think this year the goal has to be to capitalize where we’re dominant, because I think that’s what really took us out of the championship the second half of the year last year.

“I think the races we know we can win we just have to win.  If we’re able to do that, string a few together, I think we can be champions.”

These are perhaps bold words from a driver who, as mentioned above, has only two career wins. But here’s why they’re not as far-fetched as you think.

Andretti is coming into 2014 with the team consistency needed to make an impression. He’s into his second year with engineer Blair Perschbacher, while teammate James Hinchcliffe has a new engineer in Nathan O’Rourke, and rookie Carlos Munoz is just new to a full-season ride.

Andretti has the confidence from his near-breakout 2013 to know he can in fact mix it in a deep field that has so many talented drivers.

And Andretti has now shown a marked improvement at the street circuits, the ones that were his downfall in years previous. As street circuits make up a type-of-circuit high eight of 18 races this year, it’s imperative to capture as many points as possible from those weekends.

He knows the next step in that street circuit development is improving his qualifying. He made only one Firestone Fast Six – qualifying fourth at Mid-Ohio – in 2013.

“I’m still not where I want to be on the road and street courses,” he admitted. “I think what’s really been hurting me, what I’ve really been working on is qualifying, making Sundays easier on myself.

“There were a lot of races last year we had to come from the middle through the back of the pack. Nowadays it’s how we’re measured, is qualifying.”

He makes an interesting and key point about how with the spec-Dallara DW12 chassis, it’s harder to take advantage of a bad qualifying day, and that makes Andretti’s results from poor grid spots in the past all the more impressive.

“Back in the day, dad used to not even focus on qualifying, hardly even care about it,” he explained. “Everybody in the field knew he was coming halfway through the race.

“But it’s a lot harder to achieve that nowadays with the competition, the spec cars.  Everything is so close. I need to start further forward.

“My race craft is there, stuff like that.  It’s been more difficult coming from the back.  I want to be in the Fast Sixes all year.”

It’s not that Andretti was the only one left out of frequent Fast Six appearances – Hinchcliffe and their other 2013 teammate, E.J. Viso only made it to the Fast Six two times apiece.

But Ryan Hunter-Reay, established team leader at Andretti and the 2012 series champion, made it six of a possible nine attempts. That tied for second-best in the series, trailing only Will Power’s seven.

For Marco Andretti in 2014, he’s got the name, the renewed confidence and the determination to want to be the best.

If he gets the qualifying down and adds one or more victories, look out as it may finally be his time.

Saturday at Mid-Ohio: Roll out the MRTI, PWC races

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Jamin dominated Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Because it’s 7:30 p.m. ET and change, here’s some quick recaps of the rest of the day’s activity from the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course..

FULL RECAPS

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY 

  • Santiago Urrutia cleaned up and dominated the first of two Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races. My colleague Luke Smith wrote that report and it’s linked above.
  • There were a double dip of Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races, and neither winner came from Team Pelfrey. Instead, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing’s Nico Jamin swept both races. The first was less than scintillating with Jamin beating points leader Aaron Telitz (Pelfrey) and Will Owen (Juncos Racing). But the second was fascinating with rain interspersed and a heck of a lot of passes – Owen and Telitz proving aggressive when they needed to be, primarily. But up front Jamin held on for the second win of the day. Telitz holds a 14-point lead over O’Ward (345-331) heading to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Sept. 9-11, for the tripleheader season finale weekend.
  • The second of three Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda races also took place today and for the second time in as many days, it was Australian Anthony Martin who won it for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, thus making it Cape’s first Pro Mazda/USF2000 double win day of the season. Martin took the win over teammate Parker Thompson and ArmsUp Motorsports’ Victor Franzoni, and extended his points lead in the process.

PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE

  • The pair of K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3s took a 1-2 finish in World Challenge GT with Alvaro Parente winning his fifth race of the year (Long Beach, Barber race one, both Lime Rock Park races). Parente got around teammate and polesitter Austin Cindric, the 17-year-old, early and won by 1.009 seconds. Parente drives the yellow and black No. 9 car with Cindric in the blue and black No. 6 car. Bryan Heitkotter (No. 05 Always Evolving Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3) finished third for his first podium since Circuit of The Americas back in March; he also finished third overall as a GTA class competitor at Mid-Ohio, race two, last year. Jon Fogarty (GAINSCO McLaren) and Ryan Eversley (RealTime Racing Acura TLX-GT) had a great, clean scrap for fourth, Fogarty taking it. There was contact affecting a number of others; Patrick Long (No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R) received a drive-through penalty for hitting the third K-PAX McLaren of Colin Thompson. Meanwhile others who failed to finish included James Davison (Nissan), Spencer Pumpelly (RealTime Racing Acura TLX-GT), Kyle Marcelli (CRP Racing Audi R8 LMS ultra) and Adderly Fong (Bentley Team Absolute Bentley Continental GT3). Fong failed to start, Davison got hit on the opening lap, Pumpelly also got hit and it broke the right rear, and Marcelli later had contact. Michael Schein (GTA) and Alec Udell (GT Cup) won their classes.
  • Lawson Aschenbach won again at Mid-Ohio in his Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS, beating Nate Stacy (Ford Mustang Boss 302) and Brett Sandberg (KTM X-BOW GT4).

On tap for Sunday: USF2000 race three, Indy Lights race two and PWC GT/GTA/GT Cup race two.

Urrutia takes dominant victory in Mid-Ohio Indy Lights opener

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© Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Santiago Urrutia picked up his third victory of the 2016 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season with a dominant display on Saturday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Urrutia entered the Mid-Ohio weekend trailing championship leader Ed Jones by 24 points, but managed to cut the gap back down to single figures with a peerless display.

Urrutia started the race second alongside pole-sitter Felix Serralles, but a cleaner getaway from the rolling start allowed the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver to pull into the lead at the first corner.

It proved to be a lead that Urrutia would never relinquish as he worked the gap open across the rest of the race, going unchallenged en route to his third win of the season. His final advantage was 6.4 seconds.

“I’m very happy. The guys did a great job on the car,” Urrutia told IndyCar Radio after the race.

“The car was awesome, put the car on pole position for both races. It’s pretty good for the championship for me, so I’m pretty happy.”

Serralles duked for position with Andre Negrao and Dean Stoneman on the first lap, slipping behind both into fourth through Thunder Valley. Zach Veach also managed to dip past the Puerto Rican for P4 on the first lap, leaving Serralles with a mountain to climb.

Veach soaked up the pressure from Serralles before ultimately dropping back into fifth place on lap nine, his rival easing clear as he chased down Stoneman ahead.

For the final 15 laps of the race, the gap between Stoneman and Serralles rarely exceeded a second. However, the British Andretti Autosport driver managed to keep cool and retain the final podium position behind Negrao, who endured a lonely race to second to complete a one-two finish for SPM.

Veach finished fifth ahead of Jones, whose championship lead was reduced to just seven points as Urrutia also recorded the fastest lap and led the most laps, chalking up two bonus points in the process.

Zachary Claman de Melo managed to emerge victorious from a thrilling battle with Shelby Blackstock for P7, both surviving contact in the closing stages. Kyle Kaiser followed in P9 ahead of Garett Grist and Dalton Kellett, with Neil Alberico propping up the running order in P13.

Dixon to start 11th at Mid-Ohio after miscommunication (VIDEO)

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – After dominating most of this weekend at the Honda Indy 200, Scott Dixon will only start Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, CNBC) from 11th place on the grid following an odd and abnormal strategic mistake, and a miscommunication.

The driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, who led both first and third practice, was told his time from earlier in Q2 would be enough to transfer into the Firestone Fast Six.

But that’s not quite what happened. Dixon’s generally luckless season rolled on and he will start 11th; the only upside, perhaps, is he started double that – 22nd and last – and won this race two years ago courtesy of a strategic masterstroke from Ganassi managing director Mike Hull.

“We made it on track on the new set of tires, but we waved it off,” Dixon told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee. “The team felt we’d be safe. I think it’d get faster, the rain was lightening, and they didn’t hear me. Times picked up drastically.

“The Target car has been fast all weekend. Bit of a miscommunication there. Kind of like how our season has been going.

“We’ve been hoping for (luck) for three or four races. It is what it is. We’ve put ourselves in quite a big hole, there.”

Dixon enters the weekend 83 points behind points leader Simon Pagenaud, who scored the pole position on Saturday to add insult to injury for Dixon and gain another point.

Red Bull GRC: Speed dominates in Washington, D.C.

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Photo: Red Bull Content Pool
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Scott Speed has his second consecutive win in Red Bull Global Rallycross, Saturday at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., after also winning the most recent race at MCAS New River.

The defending series champion has also closed on his Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammate, Tanner Foust, who finished third in Saturday’s race.

Speed, in the No. 41 entry, got the strong launch off the line and proceeded to lead away from Bryan Herta Rallysport driver Patrik Sandell, who debuted a new Cuttwood livery on his No. 18 Ford Fiesta ST this weekend.

Meanwhile Chip Ganassi Rallycross driver Brian Deegan was third in his No. 38 NOS Energy Drink Ford Fiesta ST, ahead of Speed’s teammate Foust in the No. 34 Rockstar Energy Beetle.

Foust would later get around Deegan for third but neither of them had anything for the top two drivers.

While Speed dominated, Sandell’s Washington D.C. hot streak continued and he had his third podium of the season (second at Phoenix Round 1, won Dallas Round 3).

Meanwhile a flat right rear demoted Honda Red Bull Olbsergs MSE driver Sebastian Eriksson down to P10.

The finishing order? Speed, Sandell, Foust, Deegan and the second OMSE driver, Joni Wiman.

Steve Arpin (Ganassi) was sixth – a tied season worst result – ahead of SH Rallycross/DRR returning driver Nelson Piquet Jr.

In GRC Lites, Cabot Bigham withstood a heavy challenge from defending series champion Oliver Eriksson to take his first career Lites victory. Bigham, who raced in front of numerous friends and family members that live in the DC area, also extended his championship lead in the process with only four races remaining.

Full Supercar results from Red Bull Global Rallycross Washington DC are as follows:

  1. Scott Speed, #41 Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross Beetle
  2. Patrik Sandell, #18 Bryan Herta Rallysport Ford Fiesta ST
  3. Tanner Foust, #34 Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross Beetle
  4. Brian Deegan, #38 Loenbro Chip Ganassi Racing Ford Fiesta ST
  5. Joni Wiman, #31 Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Civic Coupe
  6. Steve Arpin, #00 Loenbro Chip Ganassi Racing Ford Fiesta ST
  7. Nelson Piquet Jr., #07 SH Rallycross/DRR Ford Fiesta ST
  8. Austin Dyne, #14 AD Racing Ford Fiesta ST
  9. Bucky Lasek, #81 Subaru Rally Team USA WRX STI
  10. Sebastian Eriksson, #93 Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Civic Coupe
  11. Sverre Isachsen, #11 Subaru Rally Team USA WRX STI

The Red Bull Global Rallycross season will resume on August 27-28 at Bader Field in Atlantic City with Round 9 of the 2016 championship. Tickets remain on sale at redbullglobalrallycross.com/tickets. The race will be shown on Sunday, August 28 at 3PM ET on NBC and 3:30PM ET on Red Bull TV.