Leavine Family Racing: There may be no ‘I’ in team, but there’s a lot of family in it

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There’s nothing more important in this world than family. The closer you are to your family members, the better the relationships are and also the better chance for success in life.

That’s the same concept that is behind Leavine Family Racing. Not only is “Family” in the team name, it’s also the way the team goes racing, with all its employees essentially being extended family members.

And even though LFR is only a part-time team in the Sprint Cup Series, it’s looking for a better overall season for its family-team in 2015.

Admittedly, gains are small when you’re a single-car team that runs just over half the races on the Cup schedule. But gains are gains, no matter how small they are, because they hopefully can eventually lead to even bigger gains.

LFR took part in Day 3 of the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte on Wednesday and showed that gains are definitely what has gotten the team to where it is now, and where it hopes to be in the future.

Last season was the first together for LFR and driver Michael McDowell. The marriage couldn’t be more perfect, as both LFR and McDowell are not only family oriented, they’re also very religious.

While larger teams might consider the kind of year LFR had in 2014 as marginal, there were indeed gains that the team made that it hopes to build upon in 2015.

“2014 was an exciting year for us,” team owner Bob Leavine said. “We made some gains and advances. And, as always, it’s one step forward and two steps back.

“But we’re excited about what we did. We had some personal bests, Daytona, Michael had a personal-best finish of seventh, which was also our best. We also had solid finishes at Bristol, 18th, and finished up at Homestead 21st. We’re excited about that and the steps we made.

“2015, the momentum is really built off of what we didn’t get done last year. That’s motivation. The successes are okay, but if you don’t learn from what you did wrong, you’re not going to get any better. Our team is motivated by getting better, we’re obviously a small team, but a team with a lot of heart.”

Indeed, LFR is NASCAR’s little engine that could. It keeps chugging and gaining steam.

“Our goal is to qualify at every race we go to, qualify well, run strong and run in the top 25,” Leavine said. “And with our people, I think we can do that. I believe those are realistic goals for our team.”

The partnership between veteran crew chief Wally Rogers and McDowell grew strong throughout the season. While the team doesn’t have the financial resources to run the full 36-race Cup schedule, it did the best with what it could.

McDowell ran 19 races last season and still managed to finish 37th. In fact, McDowell has finished 37th for each of the last three seasons, and was 36th in 2011.

But he agrees with Leavine, that a jump up to the top-25 is definitely within his and the team’s reach. With power and chassis from Team Penske, McDowell and LFR are poised to make some noise in 2015.

“It was my first year with the team last year and we really started to build some momentum halfway through the season,” McDowell said. “By the end of the year, we were starting to figure out the cars and what I needed, just the communication it takes.

“I’m looking forward to working with Wally again. He’s assembled a great team in the offseason and we had a few changes and we really feel we’ve been fortunate to add a lot of great people to our organization.

“With our partnerships and alliances with Ford and Team Penske, we really feel we have the tools to go out there and be competitive. We’re a small team but still have great equipment and great people.”

The team got a big lift Wednesday when it was announced that Thrivent Financial will be primary sponsor for 10 races and an associated sponsor for an additional 10 races in 2015. Thrivent, which will sponsor McDowell’s No. 95 Ford in the season-opening Daytona 500, joins KLove Radio as among the team’s sponsors.

Interestingly, McDowell’s best two finishes in his eight-year Cup career have come in the last two Daytona 500s. He was ninth in 2013 and a career-best seventh in 2015.

The team is continuing to look for additional sponsors to potentially compete in more than 20 races, which would allow it the opportunity to reach its goal of finishing 2015 in the top 25 in the final standings.

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Rossi remains ‘The Story’ in IndyCar in 2019

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”