Mario Andretti on IndyCar 2016: “It’s better than I’ve felt in years”

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Yesterday, Mario Andretti turned 76.

Of course, age is just a number for one of North America’s greatest ever racing drivers, who remains one of this sport’s living legends and continual true ambassadors.

And, considering he’s seen so many seasons of IndyCar racing, over more than 50 years dating back to 1964 and then to his memorable rookie test at Indianapolis in 1965 taking over for a one Roger Penske, for him to be pretty optimistic about the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season speaks volumes.

Andretti joined son and Andretti Autosport team owner/CEO Michael Andretti and grandson and driver Marco Andretti at this week’s Test in the West at Phoenix International Raceway, not just observing but also driving one of the two-seater IndyCars.

He seems to like the direction the series is going, and some of the recent management changes made by the INDYCAR organization.

“I’m very happy with what I’m seeing right now. It’s been a long time coming,” Andretti told NBC Sports in an interview during the test.

“The staff that’s in place right now is really good, in my opinion. It’s experienced, and I see a lot of common sense. I think we’ll be great.

“Going into this season this year, it’s better than I’ve felt in years. That’s my personal opinion. You know I’ve been very critical in the past. But good things are happening.”

Just in the last two weeks, INDYCAR has hired Bill Pappas as Vice President of Competition, Race Engineering, and confirmed the three-person steward group of Chief Steward Dan Davis and additional Stewards Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk. Jay Frye has also been promoted to President of Competition and Operations this offseason.

The “critical” line Andretti refers to may be an indirect reference to his well-reasoned and memorable critique of Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, with the shortening of the IndyCar season.

In speaking to Andretti at the 2013 United States Grand Prix in Austin, Andretti told me then that the decision to shorten the 2014 season from ending in mid-October to early August was “not plausible.”

Two years later, Andretti’s been proven correct, and with paddock consensus generally agreeing with the point, the 2016 season will end in mid-September instead. Granted, TV ratings have gone up, but the tradeoff was the condensed calendar.

The schedule’s also more spread out this year so it isn’t necessarily a week-to-week thrash, as it was last year from before NOLA Motorsports Park in April through Toronto in June.

Andretti is also particularly keen on the return to Phoenix, where he won his 52nd and last race of his career in 1993 (pictured above).

“It’s huge for the series, because these are some of the venues that have been such a part of the series for so many years,” Andretti explained.

“Phoenix was so good for us. It was so good for IndyCar. It’s too bad we missed it for 10 years or more.

“But to be back is wonderful; we belong here.”

Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

Petit Le Mans championship

Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”