Marco Andretti

Andretti (27) and Newgarden (2) have milestone starts this weekend. Photo: Getty Images

Andretti’s 200th, Newgarden’s 100th IndyCar starts set at Sonoma

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Two American drivers who are only separated by three-plus years in age but 100 starts and six years of experience hit some important career milestones in the Verizon IndyCar Series 2017 season finale this weekend, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Marco Andretti will start his 200th race in a career that dates back to 2006 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, when he’d only just turned 19 years old.

Meanwhile Josef Newgarden will start his 100th race in a career that also began at a young age, 21 years old, on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. in 2012.

Andretti is 30 and Newgarden 26 (turns 27 in December), and it’s easy to forget how young Andretti still is given this will be the end of his 12th season. At 26 though, Newgarden only seems to be entering the prime of his career, after overachieving with Sarah Fisher, Wink Hartman and Ed Carpenter in his first five years and now looking to secure his first career championship in his first year with Team Penske.

SONOMA, CA – AUGUST 27: Marco Andretti (C), driver of the #26 Andretti Green Racing NYSE Dallara Honda celebrates his first IndyCar race win with father Michael (L) and grandfather Mario (R) at the IRL IndyCar Series Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma August 27, 2006 at the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Of course at one point, Andretti was the hot young American prospect in IndyCar. He almost won the 2006 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, losing right off the final turn of the final lap to Sam Hornish Jr., at age 19. He eventually did win his first race of his career at Sonoma Raceway later that season.

Andretti has always been solid and perhaps misunderstood; there’s a perception that he doesn’t really seem to care, but in actuality, he cares so much that he often presses or fails to deliver in crunch time. Qualifying poorly after practicing well has been his issue this year. His last name is both his greatest asset and his greatest liability; his results largely have not lived up to the hype or hope of being the next great Andretti, the third generation driver in the iconic family legacy.

All told, Andretti has two wins from his first 199 starts – his last came at Iowa in 2011 – with 18 other podium finishes, and his most recent of those came at Fontana in 2015, 37 races ago. Andretti finished between fifth and ninth in the points in eight of his first 10 seasons but slipped to 16th last year, and is only 13th this year heading into this weekend’s finale at Sonoma.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 19: Josef Newgarden the driver of the Sarah Fisher Hartman/Dollar General car prepares for his qualifying run for the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Newgarden’s ascendance was gradual in his first three years. A tough rookie season revealed a lot of promise but an equal high number of mistakes, and without a top-10 finish, he was only 23rd in points. Podiums followed each of the next two years along with improved qualifying pace, with 14th and 13th place finishes the correct step forward.

Once he finally won his first two races in 2015, Newgarden was on the doorstep of the ascendancy in IndyCar and banked his first top-10 points finish of seventh. He improved to fourth last year, and won widespread praise in the paddock for his quick recovery from a savage looking accident at Texas Motor Speedway that left him with a fractured right clavicle and fractured right hand. That led to his signing with Team Penske for this year, where he’s won a series-high four races and leads the points by three heading into the Sonoma finale. In his first 99 starts, Newgarden has seven wins, and 11 other podiums.

Both have now become part of the IndyCar fabric over their tenures. Andretti has done decently well at Sonoma in the past beyond his win with several other top-10 finishes. Newgarden will almost certainly need to improve upon his best Sonoma finish of sixth if he is to capture his first title.

Notable drivers still looking for wins in 2017

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Counting this Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), four races remain in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. And while the season has seen nine different winners, there remain a handful of very prominent drivers who have yet to grace Victory Lane this year, with some even enduring winless streaks that go back several years.

Perhaps most prominent in this group is Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan. The 42-year-old fan favorite has not signed with a team for 2018 and beyond, meaning he’ll be keen to make an impression in the final four races of 2017.

Currently ninth in the championship, Kanaan’s best 2017 finish is second at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, and given that he was also strong at the Indianapolis 500, perhaps Pocono represents Kanaan’s best chance for a victory, which would end a winless streak that dates back to Auto Club Speedway in 2014, before the year closes.

“Pocono is definitely the type of track that I normally thrive at, and the ‘Tricky Triangle’ is such an interesting place to race with the three completely different corners,” said Kanaan, who has led 115 laps in his four prior starts at Pocono. “You have to get so many little things right to suit each corner, before you can really be successful. The No. 10 NTT Data Honda is definitely due for a win and Pocono would be a great place for that to happen.”

However, Kanaan is hardly alone as a driver with something to prove before the year ends. Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti has enjoyed an uptick in form over last year, and his speed has been evident on Friday and Saturday practice sessions quite often in 2017.

Yet, Andretti’s strong practice pace has rarely translated into strong race results. A fourth-place finish at the Honda Indy Toronto remains his only top five of 2017, with sixth at Texas, seventh at St. Petersburg, and eighth at the Indianapolis 500 his only other top ten finishes, leaving him 13th in the championship.

Marco Andretti has shown better speed in 2017, but race results have still been hard to come by. Photo: IndyCar

With Pocono his home race, and one he has previously excelled at (he sat on the pole in 2013 and led 88 laps before fuel strategy left him in tenth at the end), the 30-year-old Andretti is keen to break through at the 2.5-mile triangular oval.

“Pocono is an important race to me as it is a home race, and I will have a lot of family and friends at the track cheering us on,” said Andretti ahead of the weekend. “United Fiber & Data is also based nearby, and it would be great to have a good result for Bill (Hynes), Chad (Taylor) and the whole UFD family. We’ve sat on the pole at Pocono but (have not finished) on the podium, so I can’t help but feel like I have unfinished business in Long Pond.”

Teammates Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay, too, head into Pocono looking for race wins, which would end long winless droughts for both drivers.

Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay have run better than their results would indicate. Photo: IndyCar

This season, Hunter-Reay has been riddled with bad luck and mechanical problems that leave him languishing in 12th in the standings with only five finishes in inside the top ten, a pair of third-place finishes being his best results and only podium results so far.

Hunter-Reay won this race in 2015 and may have repeated the feat last year if not for a mysterious electrical problem that surfaced late in the race. He eventually rebounded to finish third.

As a result, Hunter-Reay enters the weekend with something of a chip on his shoulder. “I’ve really been looking forward to getting back to Pocono. There’s no doubt the DHL Honda has been very strong here the past few years. Last year’s unfortunate electrical issue that occurred while (we were) leading sent us to the back of the field, yet we were still able to come all the way back through the field to finish third. As a team, we feel like we have unfinished business at Pocono. Certainly, one of our best chances at a victory over the past year slipped away, so we’re looking for redemption,” he asserted.

Rossi, meanwhile, has not won a race since winning the last year’s Indianapolis 500. However, finishes of second at Toronto and sixth at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course see him building momentum late in the year, and place him eighth in the standings at the moment.

He showed impressive speed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway as well, meaning Pocono offers a strong possibility of Rossi battling for a win.

“Pocono is one of my favorite tracks on the calendar, and it is a special one with the whole Andretti family being from the area. We have some unfinished business to take care of this weekend from last year when our day ended prematurely after we felt like we had a car to win. This team always has something special for the superspeedways and since it is our last one of the year, we want to make sure to close this portion of the schedule out with a win for the No. 98 team,” Rossi said of his chances.

As previously mentioned, IndyCar has seen nine different winners in an already ultra-competitive 2017 season. And given the prowess of the four aforementioned drivers – or say if the pair of Ed Carpenter Racing drivers, or another surprise first-time winner this year emerges –  it would hardly be a surprise if that number hit double digits at the end of the weekend.

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Marco Andretti: Weekend fall off hiding improvements this year

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Marco Andretti’s 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season was so miserable and forgettable, and it meant 2017 was always going to be better.

The problem for him is that even though 2017 has gone better for him, it’s still not been the quantum leap hoped for or expected – similar to his offseason turnaround from 2012 to 2013, his best career season in 12 years in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

As Andretti heads to his home race next weekend, the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway (Sunday, August 20, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the driver of the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda for Andretti Autosport remains in search of both his first win since Iowa 2011 – more than 100 races ago – and his first podium since Fontana in 2015, when he came third.

Consistent flashes have been there all year. Andretti has been a regular pace setter in practice on road and street courses, leading several sessions while working with engineer Nathan O’Rourke and his new strategist, Bryan Herta as part of Andretti Autosport’s improved performance this year under new technical director Eric Bretzman. He sits 13th in points – all four Andretti cars are within seventh and 13th this year – with a best finish of fourth at Toronto.

Andretti’s qualified better – he’s qualified higher at every race this year than he did last year with the exception of St. Petersburg and Iowa – and has a season-best start of eighth on two occasions, at the Indianapolis 500 and Road America.

Still it feels like there’s been much more because in that pursuit for ultimate performance after strong practice pace, setup directions have gone the wrong way ever so slightly that leave Andretti on the outside looking in.

“For me, I really just focus on the 27 side. I haven’t taken much from my teammates this year,” Andretti told NBC Sports.

“There’s some races I know I should have, like Iowa. Obviously Ryan (Hunter-Reay) did a great job there. I’ve tried to pave my own way working with Nathan and Bryan, and make changes for what I like in the car.

“Last year we were guilty of really jumping around setups. For a driver it’s hard to pinpoint and work on yourself when it’s different every session. But for us, our roll off cars have been a lot better this year. So we can make smaller changes.”

Mid-Ohio is a perfect example though of when those smaller changes go the wrong way. Andretti was third in first practice, seventh in second practice, and then fell to 14th in qualifying, before making up spots in the race early and falling into a fuel save situation in the race.

“Mid-Ohio, unfortunately, was one we slid backwards,” he explained. “In the race we got the pace back again but we short filled on the last stop; otherwise we would have been seventh or eighth, and instead got 12th.

“If you miss out in Q1, that’s exactly it – you’re boxed in. If I would have backed it up in practice, I would have been third (in my group) with that pace.

“But it’s IndyCar racing, I prefer it like that. In this sport, it takes perfection to beat the best. I think we need to make the right decisions. I felt we got too conservative. We got the balance back for the race. It’s tough to make up ground. We needed better qualifying.”

The quartet of Andretti Hondas should be good at Pocono, a track where Hunter-Reay should have won last year before a quick mechanical cut out and where he did win in 2015. Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi, of course, have won the last two Indianapolis 500s. And Andretti himself has been close to success at Pocono, most notably in 2013, but struggled last year with 13th in qualifying and 12th in the race.

“Pocono is just about finding the balance between (Turns) 1 and 3,” he said. “What helps in (Turn) 1 doesn’t help the other.

“How we achieve it, I’m not sure with the limited practice. I’m sure we will be good. The Honda package should be good. I have been strong there in the past, but last year was an anomaly.”

Despite Hunter-Reay raving about the improved Gateway Motorsports Park surface, Andretti wonders how what he learned from his first test there in May will translate to that short oval race.

“I think that’s one we’ll have to salvage because we’re at a big deficit (aero-wise),” he said. “With the improved track grip, that will mean more we trim out, and more disadvantage we’re at. We had a decent test balance wise in May, so hopefully it’s still relevant.”

As Andretti heads into the final four races of 2017 – his last four before he gets married to fiancee Marta Krupa in late September – he’s already optimistic IndyCar’s latest reset with the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit will better suit his driving style.

At the same point, he is putting aside any of the critiques or distractions from doubters, saying he has to stay focused. What people outside the paddock on a full-time basis fail to realize is that Andretti actually has such an innate desire to succeed and perform, despite it sometimes looking appearance-wise the opposite situation. He admitted as such in an interview last year.

“What I like about it is I hope we get some predictability back,” he said. “It’s so in and out of grip right now. That’s where I suffer. I need a car to tell me what it can do. So that’ll be friendly downforce, with the underbody. That’s what I’m hoping for. We’ll try to adapt.”

As for any critiques? “I know what I have going on. I know what I’m doing, that’s all that matters. So none of that phases me anymore. Even the criticism. I’m extremely hard on myself. Honestly I don’t even read it much anymore. I just have to focus on making myself better.”

Roller coaster day for Andretti Autosport in Mid-Ohio

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Andretti Autosport’s fortunes on Lap 18 of 90 in Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series Honda Indy 200 summed up its roller coaster afternoon.

First, Marco Andretti fought hard to hold off the advances of former teammate James Hinchcliffe exiting the Keyhole.

Further down after the Keyhole and on the run to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course’s primary passing zone, Turn 4, it appeared as though then two of Andretti’s current teammates – Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay – came together while battling for position. Rossi was on the outside and Hunter-Reay on the inside, with Hunter-Reay alleging contact.

It was that kind of day. Despite the spin, Hunter-Reay rallied to eighth, while Rossi was sixth.

Hunter-Reay quickly surmised his viewpoint: “It wasn’t his corner yet. He came down. That put me over the curb on the inside. I did that corner successfully side-by-side with three other drivers. So I’m not sure why my teammate couldn’t,” he told NBC Sports.

Rossi, very much keen to avoid any issue with his teammate, said he’d talk to him later on to clarify the situation.

“I was on the outside, so if anyone was gonna chop it would have been me,” he told NBC Sports. “I looked at it and it was 50/50. You never want that to happen to a teammate. So I will go talk to him.

“We work well together every single weekend, and have for a year and a half. It’s unfortunate. We’ll resolve it and move on.”

Takuma Sato, meanwhile, led the quartet on the day while Andretti had another quiet day, finishing 12th after saving fuel early on.

“Yeah, starting third and finish fifth, it isn’t necessarily too perfect a finish,” said the driver of the No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda, the company back on the car for another race after its Indianapolis 500 victory. “But, I think we had a little issue in a pit stop and lost a couple places, so it was good to recover in the end. A solid performance from the (Ruoff Home Mortgages team).

“I don’t think it was an issue. Just, when I came out of the pits, yes unfortunately we all came together. It was Helio, and I think Ryan, and of course Alex, and in the end I think Marco as well. We had side-by-side and very close racing, but I don’t think we had any, you know, bad moment. But, we can have a chat in debriefs that way, but I don’t think we had (any issues).”

Today’s result made it back-to-back races where Andretti Autosport placed three of its four cars in the top-10, a first for the team this year in 13 races.

Sato remains the highest placed driver of the four in the championship in seventh, 72 points back, after his best finish since Detroit race two.

Rossi’s second, Marco’s fourth lead Andretti’s strong Toronto day

Rossi and Hinchcliffe on podium. Photo: IndyCar
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It seemed only a matter of time before Andretti Autosport could bank a result worthy of their drivers’ improved performances this year, and it came Sunday in the Honda Indy Toronto with a bit of luck and a bit of pace.

Alexander Rossi was unlucky to roll off eighth in his No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda – he and Takuma Sato were both caught out when the qualifying session restarted and it knocked them out of the Firestone Fast Six. Meanwhile from 11th and 16th, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay needed some help to make it up the order on Sunday.

Luckily it came in the form of a Lap 23 caution Sunday in the race. Once Tony Kanaan nosed into the Turn 1 wall, it brought out the yellow after a handful of the Andretti contingent had been into the pits for their first scheduled stops.

Sato was among those caught out by the yellow in fifth as he hadn’t pitted, but Rossi (10th), Andretti (13th) and Hunter-Reay (15th) had and suddenly found themselves poised to capitalize as a result of the jumbled sequence that would follow.

Rossi rebounded to a net second after the restart, behind leader and eventual race winner Josef Newgarden with Ed Jones and Charlie Kimball ahead but needing to stop, with Andretti and Hunter-Reay also into the top-10 following the shuffle.

They were able to stay there the rest of the race. Rossi wasn’t able to close enough on Newgarden to make a proper passing attempt, but was pleased with his first podium finish in IndyCar that wasn’t, well, that one at Indianapolis last May. Rossi hadn’t finished better than fifth in an IndyCar race outside of last year’s Indianapolis 500 so second was a needed result for him and the team.

“It’s been a long time coming. Now we can go to chase more wins,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt post-race. “I’m relieved we got the monkey off our back. To get this car where it needed to be was a huge effort. Very proud of Honda for their effort, and a huge shoutout to the fans.”

Rossi’s pre-race entrance. Photo: IndyCar

Rossi expanded on how many changes the team made from Friday to Saturday to even get the team in a good position.

“We were really at the bottom of the barrel, staring into the bottom of the barrel, I guess, Friday afternoon. We were really lost. We were the slowest, Andretti Autosport cars. Here is a tough place to be coming from to start off strong,” he explained.

“We had a lot of soul searching Friday night. We stayed quite a bit later at the in a long time. We just really analyzed everything that we could, and made some pretty solid changes overnight that suited me really well Saturday.

“If you look at where we were last year, the last four cars in qualifying, to having three cars in the top 10, really having something to fight for today, it’s a testament not only to this weekend and the strength the team has shown, but also this off-season and how much better 2017 has been for us, has been for Honda.”

Photo: IndyCar

Andretti admitted a bit of luck in ending fourth, but couldn’t express how much it was needed for both himself and the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda team, led by strategist Bryan Herta.

“It’s refreshing for sure. A trophy would have been fun. But I had fun today,” Andretti told NBCSN’s Anders Krohn. “The UFD car was great. It’s starting to put the fun back in this sport for me. Next goal for me is more hardware in the trophy case. He gave me the old go faster and save fuel, Bryan has put some fun back into it. It’s time to make this a regular occurrence going forward.”

Hunter-Reay ended sixth. Photo: IndyCar

Hunter-Reay enjoyed a combative bout with polesitter Simon Pagenaud in the final stages, Pagenaud finally making the pass in the final few laps for fifth place. The driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda then held off a bunch of others in the final couple laps as his car and tires fell off.

Speaking to NBCSN’s Robin Miller, Hunter-Reay said about the battle, “Yeah he gave me a nudge, I got back by him, I was loose in Turn 6, and I got in there pretty deep, he got by me. He was quite a bit quicker than me. But all in all, a good day. 2-4-6. Considering we started 16th, it was a good day.

“Some of the worst pickup I’ve ever experience with marbles It took four laps to get rubber off the car. It wounding turn! All in all I’m thankful to bring it home P6.”

Takuma Sato, who fell to 16th on Sunday, still is the best of the Andretti quartet in the championship, but has all but lost any title hopes after a rough patch of four races where he’s not finished better than 10th.

He sits seventh in points, 72 back of points leader Scott Dixon. Rossi is eighth, Hunter-Reay 13th and Andretti 14th.