Third full year, and first real chance, for Saavedra to shine in 2014

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Sebastian Saavedra enters 2014 in a bit of an odd position.

The Colombian is only 23, but 2014 will mark his fifth different IndyCar season, and third full one. In each season, he’s been with a different organization.

He made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 2010 by accident – literally – after he crashed late on Bump Day. But enough other cars withdrew their times to see Saavedra’s time still eligible for the field of 33. His debut was also the first race for Bryan Herta Autosport in the series.

Later in 2010, he started the season finale for Conquest Racing, which helped propel him into a full-time seat for 2011. With limited funding available, Saavedra struggled but occasionally overachieved despite missing two end-of-season races.

In 2012, he made a decision mature beyond his years, to step back to Indy Lights and learn more. In an AFS/Andretti Autosport entry, Saavedra won several races and had poor luck. But he got the chance at three more IndyCar starts with the same program, and again, did enough to merit some consideration for 2013.

So 2013 arrived and Saavedra entered the lair of Dragon Racing, but under controversial circumstances as an 11th hour replacement for Katherine Legge in the TrueCar-backed Chevrolet. Yet out of the gate, Saavedra turned in some sterling qualifying performances that left teammate Sebastien Bourdais scratching his head. Bourdais’ program improved in the second half of the year while Saavedra’s went the opposite direction entirely, in part due to crew changes.

You could argue for 2014, as Saavedra enters the AFS-backed KV Racing second seat – ironically as Bourdais’ teammate again – that he’s in exactly the same boat as the second KV driver last year, Simona de Silvestro (and yes, the names are confusingly similar).

Like de Silvestro, Saavedra has not had a full-season, top-flight opportunity and should improve from what was a trying previous season. Yet the field is so deep that given the lateness of this program coming together, it could take a few races for driver-and-team to hit their stride.

As it is, Saavedra’s relationship with Gary Peterson, through two Andretti stints and now for KV, has been the guiding force of his career.

“When I came from Europe in 2009, Gary was pretty much like my second dad, having my first dad present here of course,” Saavedra explained during IndyCar media day in Orlando.

“We built a very strong relationship.  He took me below his wing to develop me inside his driving development program. We come through since then.”

The step down to Indy Lights was something Saavedra had to do to stay in the frame. In recent years, he’s been the only example of a driver willing to make that decision rather than explore other series.

“It was that or doing nothing at all,” he admitted. “But it came with the opportunity to make ourselves stronger with AFS and Gary Peterson, trying not only to prepare, but keep learning.  At that time, being 20 years old, I had the opportunity to take chances, and still can.

“Now looking back, this is a reality because of those days.”

The KV/AFS partnership came together quickly, but KV team co-owner Jimmy Vasser has said this winter it is important to maintain teammate continuity. Saavedra learned from Bourdais last year, although both are optimistic they can forge their own paths this year to push the team forward.

“I’m actually being forced to,” Saavedra joked about working with Bourdais.

“No, we built a really great relationship last year. I think I respect Bourdais a lot and he respects me. I think that’s the key to building a great partnership with your teammate.

“I think we were able to understand each other and see development-wise that we needed each other to move forward. So I think it makes it a lot easier to have somebody by your side. As Jimmy said, you broke those barriers of who the heck is by my side. Definitely it’s a plus to have him on my side, something that is already natural.”

The “move forward” that both Saavedra and KV need to target in 2014 is an improved qualifying effort. Saavedra was tied for the worst qualifying average in the field in 2013 – 17.7 – with nary a Firestone Fast Six appearance and no starts better than 18th in the final 10 races.

The flashes of speed in the first half of nine races included five starts of 11th or better, with a best of sixth at Milwaukee.

He also only has two career top-10 finishes from 38 career starts. Those numbers can only improve if the qualifying does.

Road and street course qualifying was an area KV struggled in 2013. Both de Silvestro and Tony Kanaan had occasional highlights, but combined for only three Fast Six appearances between them.

Because Saavedra’s 2013 was such a struggle, he does enter 2014 from a position of strength knowing that he has nowhere to go but up. And Vasser expects his pair of “Sebs” to do just that.

“Jimmy sees Bourdais with a lot of respect, of course.  He saw me as the youngster that pretty much still has no limits,” Saavedra said. “He’s demanding a lot, of course. But that’s something we’re very welcome to.”

Josef Newgarden dominates from pole to win KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

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There’s a reason why Josef Newgarden calls Road America his favorite racetrack – and he showed why Sunday, dominating to victory in the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc.

Newgarden led all but two laps from the pole and was in a class of his own throughout the 55-lap caution-free race on the 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course in central Wisconsin, defeating runner-up Ryan Hunter-Reay by 3.3759 seconds.

“(I wanted this one) really bad,” Newgarden told NBCSN in victory lane. “I wanted to win here since last year. This car has been a rocket all weekend. It wasn’t easy. Ryan was very quick and I knew Dixon was right behind him, so we were working for it the entire race.

“I kind of knew what I had to do, but it was a lot of work. Ryan was really pushing me. It’s good to get a win. It doesn’t matter what car, as long as it’s Team Penske.”

It was Newgarden’s series-leading third win of the season in the first 10 races (also won at ISM Raceway in Phoenix and Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama), pushing him past Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Will Power and Scott Dixon, who both have two wins in the 2018 campaign.

“I was hoping to make it more interesting for the fans here at Road American and on TV,” Hunter-Reay said. “The last two stints, when he put on used red and I had blacks, he was really hooked up. … I was pushing 110 percent, that’s for sure.

“Unfortunately, I just couldn’t catch up to Josef. I was able to close up the gap a little bit here and there, but not like I was early in the race. He found his own way for sure. Definitely, the clean air out front helps, but hats off to him: he had a great race and deserves the win.”

Dixon finished third, followed by Takuma Sato, Robert Wickens, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud, Spencer Pigot (his best finish of the season), Ed Jones and James Hinchcliffe.

Dixon (393 points) maintains the Verizon IndyCar Series points lead, Hunter-Reay (348) moved up two spots to second place, Alexander Rossi (tied with Hunter-Reay for second at 348) dropped one spot to third, Newgarden (343) climbed one spot to fourth and Will Power (328) dropped two spots to fifth in the standings.

“It’s so tight … so tough,” Dixon said. “The Verizon IndyCar Series, right now, the competition is through the roof. To get a podium these days is tough enough, yet to get a win. But we’ll keep pushing and see what we get.”

There was action right from the opening lap, including misfortune for Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power, who suffered engine issues that sent him to the pits after the opening lap.

After trying to work on his car in the pits, Power’s team pushed it back to the paddock to attempt further repairs, but those efforts failed and the car was retired.

Power was third in the IndyCar points standings coming into the race, 36 points behind series leader Scott Dixon. He finished last (23rd) in Sunday’s race and will likely drop to fifth in the standings.

“They replaced the exhaust, and it just blew straight back out,” Power told NBCSN’s Marty Snider. “So, there’s obviously something going on in there that’s gone wrong.

“I feel bad for all the guys. It’s just one of those things, you know – you’ll get that every now and then at some point. No good, but we’ll move on to the next one.”

Also, 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi had an issue with what appeared to be brakes- or suspension-related that resulted in a lengthy pit stop after 38 laps. Rossi finished 16th in the 23-car field.

“Hugely disappointing,” Rossi told NBCSN. “It was good enough for fourth … but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”

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