With nothing to lose, IndyCar title contender Pagenaud charges into Fontana

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Pre-season, I wrote this was the year Simon Pagenaud was meant to establish himself as a Verizon IndyCar Series title contender from start-to-finish in the 2014 season.

It’s not that his third place in 2013 was unexpected, but it owed more to a second half surge than a consistent run from start-to-finish.

You could say it’s almost mission accomplished for the Frenchman thus far as the driver of the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda still has a shot at the title Saturday night in the MAVTV 500, while driving the MAVTV-backed car.

Still, it’s a long shot.

Pagenaud enters the weekend 81 points behind Team Penske teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves, and he’d need something close to a miracle to keep Team Penske from claiming its first title in eight years.

A win is his only option, and even then he’d need Power to finish 21st or 22nd in the 22-car field, and Castroneves a more achievable fourth or worse.

But a win on ovals would be the next logical step in Pagenaud’s career, as he’s ascended rapidly in his third season back in the sport since 2012. He was high on confidence after a seventh-place finish, after starting 16th, in Milwaukee two weeks ago.

“When people talk about ovals, they tell you it’s all about momentum and timing,” Pagenaud said at the time. “But until you really get it for yourself, those are just words.

“In sports car racing, you learn all about fighting against other types of cars that are slower than you in various corners. Learning how to navigate around those cars is all about timing and momentum, too.

“Today, I finally made the connection between the two. It was a big step forward for me personally as a driver on ovals.”

It’s not the only step forward he has made in 2014.

His qualifying has been better – an 8.3 average is a three-plus spot gain on his 11.6 mark of a year ago – and he has a 7.2 average finish with only one DNF (Detroit race one).

He’s finished in the top-12 on each of the five oval races so far, so he’s getting there in terms of his oval development. He still has two wins, same as he did a year ago.

And lastly, he hasn’t, outwardly anyway, allowed his free agent status to negatively affect his driving. He remains as committed and focused to the current task at hand as the rest of us ponder what his next move will be.

Pagenaud is in IndyCar’s top tier, no question, and while a championship is still a long shot, he’s done enough this year to give himself a chance going into the finale.

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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).