IndyCar: Saavedra’s best run of year, possibly career, goes begging at Iowa

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The 50th start of Sebastian Saavedra’s Verizon IndyCar Series career nearly produced its best ever result. Unfortunately for the driver of the No. 17 KV/AFS Racing Chevrolet, a slight brush of the wall just before his third pit stop ended his charge in the Iowa Corn Indy 300 presented by DEKALB.

Saavedra matched his car number in qualifying, but marched forward from P17 into the top five by half distance. He made it to third shortly thereafter, but then got in the marbles in Turn 2 and needed to bring the car in for repairs.

It was a hairy exit as Saavedra nearly collected Ryan Briscoe as he moved down the back straight into pit in. An accident there was averted and Saavedra made it into the pit lane, although he’d lose seven laps under caution. Mechanical issues ended his race for good on Lap 258 in the same place he started… 17th.

“Very hard to describe how disappointed I am,” Saavedra said post-race. “This was our day, we had a car that I connected very well with. We were very loose from the beginning but I loved it and I was driving where I needed to drive it. Unfortunately at the end of the third stint, everyone was struggling with grip and my rear tires were extremely worn and I just couldn’t save this ‘moment’ and it ended our day.”

The 24-year-old Colombian was introspective as well, and mature in taking responsibility for the mistake.

“Last night’s result doesn’t show how good a car we had,” he said. “I want to apologize to everyone who believed in me today, we had this race and I take full responsibility. We have shown that we can do and that we belong at the front, so we will keep digging and head to Toronto next weekend.”

Saavedra has been a weird driver to pinpoint this year. Two results of 11th and ninth out of the gate showed good promise and he ranked in the top-10 in points.

But since then, it’s been myriad struggles. Saavedra scored the Grand Prix of Indianapolis pole before his race there ended in disaster following his stall on the grid. In the last 10 races, Saavedra has yet to finish better than 14th, and ranks only ahead of the equally luckless Takuma Sato among full-time drivers in points (Saavedra is 20th, Sato 21st).

Again, as was the case in 2013, the flashes are there for the likable Colombian. But he’s been a bit overshadowed this year by his three countrymen; Juan Pablo Montoya and Carlos Huertas are race winners, and Carlos Munoz has made multiple podium visits.

Saavedra’s best chance yet to join that trio in earning his own round of good headlines – and praise – went begging Saturday night at Iowa Speedway.

INDYCAR: Zach Veach ready for stronger second half of season

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If you hear Zach Veach humming or even singing The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” this weekend at Road America, there’s a jolly good reason for it, as they say in England.

Much like the way teammate Alexander Rossi has nicknamed his car “Baby Girl,” Veach has nicknamed his road and street course car “Penny Lane,” thanks in part to his girlfriend being a huge Beatles fan who has helped Veach also become a fan.

The Stockdale, Ohio native also has a nickname for his speedway car: “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”

Veach has had a tough rookie season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. He comes into this weekend’s Kohler Grand Prix in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, ranked 15th in the standings with 147 points, but an already massive 210 points behind series leader Scott Dixon.

He could easily sing The Beatles’ “Help!”, given how the season has gone so far.

The 23-year-old Veach’s best finish – and only top-10 showing thus far in 2018 – has been fourth at Long Beach – in “Penny Lane” of course, a finish he hopes to equal, if not improve upon, Sunday in central Wisconsin.

He’s struggled since Long Beach, though, failing to finish higher than 12th in the following six races: 13th at Birmingham, 23rd in both the Indianapolis Grand Prix and Indy 500, 12th and 13th at Detroit’s Belle Isle and 16th at Texas.

He also finished 16th in each of the season’s first two races at St. Petersburg and Phoenix.

But Veach hopes to be singing another Beatles song on the 4.048-mile road course: “Twist and Shout” in hopes of having a strong finish on the twisting 14-turn kettle moraine course.

Zach Veach, driver of the #26 Relay Group 1001 Honda, practices for the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8, 2018. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Veach has a good reason to be optimistic for success at Road America.

“Road America has actually been pretty good to us in USF 2000 and Indy Lights,” Veach said. “I think we have four or five podiums there. In 2016 (racing for Belard Auto Racing), we set the track record in Lights, won the first race and finished third in the second. I’m hoping that speed continues (in Sunday’s IndyCar race).”

While he acknowledges this season’s struggles thus far, Veach also knows he’s learning and improving.

“I think the biggest thing is the braking capabilities of the Indy car,” he said. “You’re going from steel rotors (in Lights) to carbon pads. Honestly, it feels like you can brake 150 feet deeper going into a corner with an Indy car, but at the same time, you’re also going into that corner 40 to 50 mph faster in an Indy car than in a Lights car.

“Our first year in Indy Lights wasn’t anything spectacular, and then we came back and almost won a championship. I think that’s just the way I go about things. I take inches at a time instead of miles, but I feel like we’re getting to that point where we need to be in IndyCar.”

Veach is no stranger to Andretti Autosport, having raced with the team from 2010 to 2014 and then signed a three-year contract to drive in the Verizon IndyCar Series last fall.

“To have the opportunity to race with Andretti is almost perfect for me as far as growth and development,” Veach said. “With the three teammates I have and the skill and experience they have, it’s allowed my learning curve to accelerate that much quicker.

“That’s the tough thing. It’s a rookie season and when I look back at it and look at numbers, you may say things didn’t look good at certain races. But when I look back at them, I say to myself where that’s when I did my best fuel save, or that’s when I figured out how to fix an issue with braking. There’s so much I’ve picked up.

“But I feel like these last two race weekends have been arguably the most comfortable I’ve felt. Detroit, I was looking so great for 12th and 13th, and Texas, racing from 16th to 3rd and then I made a mistake (finished 16th). I finally feel confident enough to say I can race these guys and can race them hard and the car is finally starting to feel small, if you want to say that, like I’m driving the car instead of being stuck behind somebody else.”

While he’s learned from all of his Andretti Autosport teammates — Rossi, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay — Veach feels he is closest to fellow young driver, Rossi.

“We’re both on the younger side of the spectrum of our teammates,” Veach said of Rossi. “And he’s the newest guy learning IndyCar, so he got that experience a little sooner than the other guys as far as time.

“For me, I’m in much the same position he was in two years ago. He’s been real helpful in helping me get up to speed.”

With eight more races remaining in the season, Veach’s primary goal is to finish his first full IndyCar season in the top-10. He’s currently 66 points behind the 10th-ranked driver, teammate Marco Andretti.

“If we could be top-10 in the championship, that’d be great, that’s what we’re hoping for,” Veach said. “We want to try and be consistently in the top-10 in the second half (of the season) in race results, too. And if we could get some top-fives, that would be fantastic.

“We just have to keep improving on qualifying, which shows how well you understand the car and how you can get the most out of it. I feel our race speed has been good, but when you’re starting at or near the back, it’s hard to move forward.”

Even so, there’s still good reason for optimism for Veach.

“Andretti always gives its drivers some of the best cars, so at the end of the day, it comes down to you learning as much as you can and learning as much as you can get out of a race-winning car,” he said. “I’ve just been lucky. This is my sixth season with Andretti if you count the ladder series, and it always has felt like a family.”

And if he has a strong finish Sunday at Road America, don’t be surprised if Veach hums or sings another Beatles song, “I Feel Fine,” as he leaves the legendary road course.

Follow @JerryBonkowski