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.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Are Saying about Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

Helio Castroneves leads the field early at last year's IndyCar race at Road America. Photo: IndyCar.
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Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (courtesy IndyCar Media Relations):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love? These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Road America is a pretty cool track. It is one of my favorite tracks in the world and my favorite track in the U.S. Last year, I had a great weekend there in Indy Lights, winning the first race as well as the pole position. Each time we work together as a team, we are developing the car and getting quicker. I think we might have a great car for this weekend and I’m looking forward to it.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Road America is one of the coolest tracks in North America. It’s the kind of track that lets you really stretch an Indy car’s legs and really push it. We had a solid test in the Arrow Electronics car there last week, but testing is one thing and racing a whole other, so I’m excited to get there and see what we’ve got.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another. While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. It’s been a great last few races for the team, and it shows we have the speed in the cars we need in order to win and compete at the front. I hope we can keep up the momentum this weekend with the First Data car. It was nice having a weekend off in the schedule, and the team will be refreshed and ready to attack at Road America.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was awesome to have some time off after the long stretch – especially to spend time with my wife and son on Father’s Day. It was really great for me and the rest of the team. It has been quite a whirlwind for everyone since Indianapolis, so it is nice to have the schedule calm down a bit. Texas was a tough one for myself and the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team. It was disappointing but we are ready to bounce back. Road courses are always so much fun and this is definitely one of the most beautiful tracks on the circuit. The fans at Road America are such great INDYCAR fans and I really enjoy meeting them when we’re there. I always look forward to this race and am ready to get back on track there.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I love going to Road America for a number of reasons. It’s a very cool, fast and challenging track. The fan experience is one of the best in America and it’s the closest INDYCAR race to ABC Supply’s headquarters, so I’m expecting to have a lot of support during the weekend.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We tested at Road America and it went well in the end. We didn’t start off the best, but I do think we found a few things that can really help us as we go forward. I am excited for this aero package on a long track like Road America. I think the passing will be great, the cars will look awesome and will be fast! I have spent a ton of time at Road America in my lifetime and just find it to be the best track in this country. I am excited to join my dad and all of my family up there this weekend to enjoy the races just like we always have done growing up! I have always enjoyed the race there and I think that’s why I have had some success. Having said that, a win would mean a ton to me. I would love to get it for my GEHL team this weekend! With GEHL and Manitowoc being so close by, it’s a huge race weekend for us too. I have high hopes for the next eight races. We have had a solid start to the season but no wins. We need wins, we need podiums, and I hope we can make that happen here very soon.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite tracks on the schedule. I have great memories racing there as it’s where I won my first Indy Lights race last season and it’s a circuit I’ve always done well at. We’ve made some great progress so far this year, but have not yet had the chance to show it with a good result aboard our No. 19 Paysafe car. Hopefully, we can change that this weekend and give the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing crew the top result that they deserve.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I’ve been on the simulator twice now learning Road America, which was good as I learned what way everything goes. It looks like it might be quite a tough circuit. There are a couple of blind corners that will be difficult and also some elevation changes. Those always add another element of difficulty into the mix as you have to judge your distance by things other than being able to see where you’re going. It will be nice to get back on a road course after a bumpy street course. Overall, I’m looking forward to Road America. It should be a good challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Road America is always a track I look forward to going to. It’s one of the best venues on our schedule, for sure! I’ve always enjoyed it, ever since I started racing there in Skip Barber, and it’s a great place to drive an Indy car around. It’s the hometown race for our partner Direct Supply and we’re really excited to have them on board. Hopefully, we can get a good finish for them and the whole ECR team.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a nice little break but now I’m fully focused and ready to head to Road America. After having a really great finish at Texas, the entire No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team and I are pumped to go to Road America. It’s one of the most beautiful tracks we get to visit and the racing is also great. I just love road courses. It’s also always great to see so many of our friends from Menards up there, so I’m looking forward to saying hello to a lot of folks. The fans at Road America are some of the best, and I know we’re going to put on a great show there.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “It’s great to come back fully recharged and ready to get after it at the KOHLER Grand Prix. We had a couple of good results earlier this month, and I’m feeling really confident in how this Carlin team is progressing in its maiden Verizon IndyCar Series season. I’ve always enjoyed Road America, since my days in Formula Ford – from the challenges of the course to the camping and fan support, it’s just a classic event on our schedule. I’ve come away with a couple of top-10s here since INDYCAR’s return to the track, and I have full faith in the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet team that we’ll be racing up front on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Road America is a track that has been good to me in the past. My last time there was in 2016 in an Indy Lights car. We set a track record, won the first race and finished third in Race 2. I’m hoping that speed helps us out in the Indy car this weekend. The last two weekends have been good for us, as far as progress as a rookie. We were super competitive at Detroit and ran in the top three at one point in Texas. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that momentum and have a strong finish at Road America to start the second half of the season off strong.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses in the world. I am very excited to be heading there this week as it is also the one track on the schedule that I have a huge amount of history and track time at. We have always had strong pace in Elkhart Lake, but never really gotten a result, so we will be looking to change that this weekend and hopefully close up the gap to the top of the points.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “Road America has always been one of my favorite tracks on the INDYCAR schedule. The DHL team had a strong race here last year, so I’m looking forward to building on that and the momentum we’ve had as a team through the last several races.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We tested at Road America last week and I think the test went well. It was a little confusing as there were two specs of tires and the difference of each was more than expected, but we were able to cover multiple setups and found a good direction.  There were not enough teams to directly compare at the test but we made a good progress, so I believe we should be competitive at Road America. I enjoy driving there so much but I don’t have a strong history at the track. I had a good race in 2016, but an electrical problem blew our race. Road America has a couple of ultra-high-speed corners like the carousel, kink and unsighted Billy Mitchell Bend. They are definitely some of the most challenging corners. The track flows so well and has a combination of a tight bend with a long straight followed by big braking areas that makes a great overtaking opportunity, so the racing is always an exciting one there. That’s one of my favorite parts and the fans are so enthusiastic!  Driving this fast track is just huge fun. Road America is a beautiful, great race course.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “I am very excited for my first Verizon IndyCar Series race this weekend at Road America. We had a great test there last week. I was able to learn a lot about the car and the strong Chevy engine. I am looking forward to getting back in the car on Friday and seeing what we can do this weekend.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “After a much-needed break, I can’t wait to get back to Road America. It’s a track I’ve felt very comfortable with since I started in INDYCAR in 2016 and my results the last two years have shown it with two seventh-place qualifying runs and a top-10 finish last season. The whole Carlin team is really starting to gel and our results just keep improving every race weekend, so I’m hoping we can put together a good run this weekend for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet in Road America and get both cars into the top 10 for both qualifying and the race.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a track I love racing at. I’ve had many race wins in other series there and it is one of my all-time favorite tracks. I’m really looking forward to getting to race there in an Indy car with Harding Racing and hope to have our best result of the year.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses to drive. The fans there are great and it helps make for one of the greatest settings of the year. Each year, we have a team cookout with my crew where we can just relax after a busy month and a half and reset ourselves for the rest of the season. It would be great to walk out of this weekend with a podium finish for the U.S. Concrete team and continue our forward momentum.”