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Stability, excitement fuels Rossi’s extension with Andretti

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Within the last couple weeks, Alexander Rossi has really showcased how he’s solidified his stature within the Verizon IndyCar Series, and Friday’s formal confirmation he’ll be back with Andretti Autosport for two more years at least was a great sign of that.

What’s been fascinating to watch this year, as the driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda sits seventh in points going into this weekend’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN), is how well he’s gelled with the three new components of his effort – Andretti Autosport technical director Eric Bretzman, engineer Jeremy Milless and strategist Rob Edwards.

Altogether Rossi is Andretti Autosport’s highest-placed car in the championship – seventh entering this weekend’s race – on the heels of two podium finishes (second in Toronto and third at Pocono).

Rossi has been able to assist Milless, who engineered a Chevrolet last year for Josef Newgarden at Ed Carpenter Racing, in certain areas with the Honda package whereas Milless has brought fresh ideas from what worked on a Chevrolet kit. Milless replaced Tom German as Rossi’s race engineer; German, now at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, sits one spot ahead in the championship in sixth place.

“With the addition of Eric coming onboard, the technical director, he kind of brought everything back into a circle, if you will, which was a positive, improved our damper program. We’ve improved everything from pit stops, car build. I mean, it’s a whole lot of things to making a car fast than just the dampers you put on it,” Rossi said Friday.

“Also with the addition to my engineer, Jeremy Milless, brought another mental philosophy and approach from a different manufacturer, so we got some insight into that, what was working for them.”

For Edwards, he’s taken over as strategist from Bryan Herta. In 2017, Herta’s name still remains part of this entry, the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian car, as a co-entrant.

Herta told NBC Sports Friday that he will continue with Andretti Autosport into 2018, but the identity of which car will be the Andretti-Herta entry is still to be determined.

The Rossi entry could still be labeled the Andretti-Herta car, as it has the last two years, or that designation could switch. Herta has moved to Marco Andretti’s pit stand this year as his race strategist. The car number nor team name designation was not identified in today’s Rossi extension.

“We’ll be back with Andretti, and there will be a 98 car with the team,” Herta told NBC Sports.

Edwards, meanwhile, has worked well with Rossi throughout the year. Rossi admitted Friday that the overall combination of the new elements didn’t really click until the month of May in Indianapolis.

“You wouldn’t have seen it, but, I mean, it took us probably through the month of May to really start to be on the same page, which I think is fairly normal and natural,” Rossi said.

“Not because either of us were doing anything wrong, you’re not on the same communication wavelength yet. Under pressure situations and crunch time, being able to kind of take the information I have and relay it in an efficient way, make decisions based on that, that’s something that comes with time. I think we’re at that point now.”

Michael Andretti hailed Rossi when speaking about him on Thursday in the paddock, prior to official confirmation that Rossi would continue for another two years.

“I think he’s done exactly what I thought he’d do (in his second year). He learned a lot last year. He’s put it to good use this year. A lot of places, he’s been our best car,” Andretti said.

Rossi also hailed NAPA Auto Parts, which has now built and cultivated a trio of drivers it backs – Rossi in IndyCar, Ron Capps in NHRA and Chase Elliott in NASCAR – over the last several years. They helped put Rossi’s name more on the map in North America, he said.

“When we did win, it obviously put the entire program under a spotlight for 12 months, thanks to the media tours that the Verizon IndyCar Series puts together, and the national and global exposure that NAPA got, that I got, and kind of my name and brand being developed in the United States, which was something that was severely lacking at the beginning of 2016, because I had been overseas for so long. It really gave us the opportunity to show NAPA, you know, what this series could offer, what I could offer, what Andretti Autosport could offer,” Rossi said.

“They obviously re-upped for 2016 in a slightly bigger role. They’re doing that again for 2018, which was a huge thing for the series. It’s massive to have one of the premier auto parts manufacturers involved in the championship, to have a household name, brand and company put the effort into remaining with us and the team and the series. It’s a huge thing for everyone. It’s a big honor to be able to represent them and try and get them as good of results as possible.”

The advice Rossi gave about how new drivers coming from an F1 or other international series environment should approach IndyCar is simple: leave nothing on the table for every session. It may have stemmed from a conversation at St. Petersburg in 2016, when Rossi made his IndyCar debut, where preseason concern was expressed he might not have full focus on IndyCar.

“To not underestimate any element of the championship,” Rossi admitted. “You really have to bring your best effort from Thursday morning when you get here to Sunday night. That’s not just in the race car.

“I mean, an example that I’ll give, in Mid-Ohio, we led P3. We were really good in Q1. Went to Q2, I made one rear spring change, and I only last half a tenth or a tenth (of a second), but it was enough to not make me advance to the Fast Six. It was one spring change, like one step. It’s not like we revolutionized the car, put on a whole new package. It was one little thing.

“It actually didn’t hurt performance that much, but it didn’t give us the extra tenth we needed. That’s how on it you have to be for every single lap and session. If not, you make that mistakes, you can very quickly — it may be the difference of not only not getting into the Fast Six, it could be the difference of not getting into the top 12, then you’re starting 14th, you have to recover all weekend.

“It’s every decision you make you need to be sure about. I think I underestimated that. I think a lot of guys underestimate that coming in. It’s not just the competitiveness of how good the guys are on the track, it’s the decisions you make in the hours between each session that’s also super critical.”

The extension caps off what has been a stressful few months for Rossi, his family and his team amidst all the silly season speculation, and sees him assured within the same team where he’s laid his groundwork in IndyCar.

“Racing can take the focus away from a lot of people for the task at hand,” he said. “For the next year, you just have to focus on winning races. It’s kind of easy to get caught up in what’s happening. You can start to kind of lose morale at times among the team because there’s just the unknown, right? They know you’re talking to other teams. It’s a difficult situation for everyone involved.”

Ferrari teammates Vettel and Raikkonen fastest in rainy final practice at Australian GP

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen went one-two in the final practice session ahead of qualifying at the water-logged Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel set a best-lap time of 1 minute, 26.067 seconds, more than 2.4 seconds faster than his teammate in second.

Both Ferrari drivers switched from their intermediate tires to the super-fast, ultra-soft tires for the final few laps of the session, testing conditions on the track after a day-long downpour left it slick and filled with small puddles.

Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton did not opt to try out their soft tires, sticking to the intermediates for the entire session. They had the seventh- and eighth-fastest times, after topping the leaderboard in practice in dry conditions on Friday.

The heavy rains subsided by early afternoon, allowing the track to rapidly dry during the third practice session and making conditions safe for drivers to test their soft tires.

Still, only a few drivers completed a timed lap with the softer compounds, with Mercedes, Red Bull and most of the others staying with their intermediates.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson had the third-fastest time of the session on ultrasoft tires, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on intermediates.

Hamilton remains the favorite to capture his fifth straight pole position at the Australian Grand Prix in qualifying later Saturday. He had the fastest laps on ultrasoft tires in the two practice sessions on Friday, though Verstappen was right behind him.

Verstappen and Vettel both slid on the slick track early in the third practice session, but maintained control and completed their runs without incident.

Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, had the sixth-fastest time of the session. The Australian’s chances of winning his fifth career Grand Prix on his home track in Melbourne took a hit late Friday when he was assessed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

The Australian driver was penalized for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday’s second practice session because of debris on the track.