Houston Update: Helio battling Pagenaud and Power in Race 2

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After starting from pole position, Helio Castroneves has been able to stay up front in the first half of today’s Race 2 of the Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston.

Today’s 90-lap race began with a rolling start under dry conditions, and pole sitter Castroneves was able to keep the field behind him on the run into the Turn 1/2 chicane. However, Simon Pagenaud was able to take second spot behind the Brazilian from rookie Mikhail Aleshin.

Damage on Lap 1 forced Mike Conway to the pits to get a new nose, while two laps later, Josef Newgarden made a strategy call and flipped to primary “black” tires after starting on the alternate “reds.”

As Newgarden got his blacks, Saturday’s Race 1 winner Carlos Huertas slowly made his way off the course. Race strategist Darren Crouser told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast that Huertas’ No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda simply “shut off” and also confirmed that Huertas was done for the day. It’s the Colombian rookie’s first DNF of the season.

Around 10 or so laps later, more drivers began to trickle into the pits including Scott Dixon on Lap 21. But two laps later, Dixon came back to the pits with possible brake problems on the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

It bears noting that Pagenaud suffered brake issues in yesterday’s Race 1. In his case, they involved large temperature splits between the rotors keeping him from using the brakes effectively in the wet.

On Lap 29, Graham Rahal came out of the pits ahead of Mikhail Aleshin, who ended up going into the back of Rahal’s car as they headed for Turn 3. Aleshin sustained front wing damage and needed to pit, but a short time later, Rahal came in too – not for the contact, but because of shifting problems.

Meanwhile, Castroneves and Pagenaud pitted together on Lap 32 and maintained their top two positions. But running third after the cycle of stops was Will Power, who made steady progress from 18th on the grid in his opening stint before his stop at Lap 30.

The race finally saw its first yellow at Lap 42 when Carlos Munoz slid at Turn 10 and slapped the outside wall. Munoz, who finished third in yesterday’s Race 1, eventually came to a stop with apparent suspension damage to the right-rear of his car.

At the halfway point (Lap 45 of 90), your Top 5 is Castroneves, Pagenaud, Power, Sebastien Bourdais in fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya (second in Race 1) in fifth. Out of the Top 5 at this juncture of the race, only Bourdais is running with the softer “red” tires.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).