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Max Chilton high on life heading into tonight’s Phoenix race

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Things are looking fairly great for IndyCar’s new No. 8 – rookie Max Chilton of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams.

The 24-year-old Englishman will roll off eighth for today’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix in the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the best start of his thus far two-race Verizon IndyCar Series career.

He’s actually the first driver who broke Luyendyk’s prior track record at Phoenix from 1996 in Friday qualifying, when he clicked off a 190.006 mph lap on the first of qualifying (although it was beaten as the day went on).

He’s also nearly eight years into a relationship with girlfriend Chloe Roberts, who he proposed to in the break between the St. Petersburg season opener and Phoenix this weekend.

For Chilton, life is good as he continues to appreciate the comfort level he has racing in America while still maintaining his UK roots.

“Ever since I came here for the start of last year, in Indy Lights, it’s so open and welcoming,” Chilton told NBC Sports.

And one of the luminaries who’ve made Chilton feel right at home is Mario Andretti.

In a recent Autosport article, Andretti said Chilton arrived with his Iowa Speedway win in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.

“Here again, it shows the moments of brilliance,” Andretti told Autosport’s Bruce Martin. “It shows that he can be versatile, which is huge. I think it is a huge attribute to any driver to show versatility. That is why Chip Ganassi hired him.

“Chip has always had a very good eye for drivers. Here is a guy with a bright future ahead of him and the best is yet to be seen.”

Ganassi, too, took the opportunity to praise him at St. Petersburg.

“We try to find successful guys with their future and want to do well, want to grow and be part of the team. I think Max has certainly some potential,” Ganassi told assembled reporters in St. Petersburg.

Chilton, understandably, was flattered by the praise.

“(Andretti’s) comments prove it! I’ve never done him any favors. He’s given me such kind words. It’s nice to know,” he said.

Things are a bit different for Chilton this week, with a new spotter and with team driver coach Dario Franchitti not at Phoenix owing to his commentary commitments for the FIA Formula E Championship. Franchitti still busts his chops, though…

But he’s still focused and determined to do his best even with the changes.

“Every race weekend is different. For the spotter, at the end of the day, you’re telling them what you want them to say, and thus far the spotter is doing a good job,” he said.

“And Dario gave me a lot of info before I came here, and he said he’s only a phone call away. That gives you a lot of confidence.”

As for the engagement? Chilton’s had it planned.

“It was the plan – seven years in the making!” Chilton said. “I always knew where I’d do it.

“I’m just glad I put the GoPro there. There’s things you just don’t remember! It’s great to see where it was.

“It was worse for her. She was so shocked. But I was planning it!”

He’ll be looking for more celebration tonight, as he’s already more comfortable at Phoenix in his second trip to the 1.022-mile oval after his first test there in February.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.