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.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”