Bell’s best shot 1 of 5 great hopes for Andretti Autosport in Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – The Andretti Autosport of 2016 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a welcome throwback to the Andretti Autosport of 2012, 2013 and 2014, rather than the imposters of 2015 that were languishing midpack without any chance of winning.

And the best part for the team is that any of its five drivers has a realistic shot at winning.

Ryan Hunter-Reay starts third in search of his second Indianapolis 500 in the No. 28 DHL Honda, while any of his other four teammates would become a first-time winner.

In fourth is NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell, having had arguably his best month to date in the No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen/Robert Graham Honda.

Carlos Munoz, the sneaky good Colombian who has always done well at Indianapolis, starts fifth in the No. 26 United Fiber & Data Honda.

Then Alexander Rossi has had a damn impressive first month of May in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/CURB Records Honda and will start 11th, best of five rookies in the field.

And last but certainly not least, Marco Andretti is hoping this will finally be his year in the No. 27 Snapple Honda from 14th on the grid.

The four race veterans here have all been good – Hunter-Reay may be the only winner in the group but each of the other three has been regular top-five contenders over the years.

Bell’s ascendance and quick acclimation to the team, with engineer Craig Hampson as an asset and with a great crew, has been a welcome story line to monitor this month.

“I’m so used to doing the interviews and saying ‘Hell, I’ll try to pick off where I can and work into top five.’ But now we’re starting here,” Bell told NBC Sports.

“We’ve started up front before (fourth in 2011). It’s nice to have clean air and good visibility. I’ll have a chance to lead this thing early on. It’ll be fun to put it all together on race day.”

Although Bell’s deal for the Indianapolis 500 came together fairly late, he’s gelled quickly.

“Yeah (a month like this) was I what hoping for, but I’m not sure I expected it,” he said. “I wasn’t surprised when we achieved it knowing how strong their winning pedigree is in the sport. I’m as happy for team and Honda as myself. I know how they hard to work with.

“And working with Craig has been terrific. He is one of the winningest race engineers in our sport. He’s totally passionate about extracting the maximum performance we can. I’ll miss him on Monday!”

Munoz is that driver that you don’t realize can win it but you probably would be stupid to overlook.

The 24-year-old finished a famous second on debut in 2013 and followed it up with fourth in 2014. Poised for another top-five last year, he fell back late owing to a late splash and dash for fuel.

Why does he think he’s so good here? Munoz instead said it’s the people that prepare his car.

“I get that question a lot,” he admitted. “I think with the team, the car, our team of Andretti has been so good and strong here at Indy.

“You can see it with whatever driver in fifth car here, goes quick. I’m not taking my own credit. They have something special here in ovals. Here, Pocono, I feel really comfortable.

“We’ve had four different drivers in the fifth car, the last four years. And I’ve learned from all of them. It could be the way they race, or the way they time their passing. Something you have to learn from all the drivers.”

It was easy to forget given what happened at Pocono last fall but Hunter-Reay did win the series’ most recent 500-mile race there, last August.

Marco Andretti himself has but one goal on Sunday: end that damn winless streak for the family driving here, that’s lingered since Mario’s first and only win in 1969 (see Bell and Mario Andretti flipping pizzas, here).

“I’ve had a lot of great shots here. I’m pretty confident with the race car,” he said.

“We’ve had hell of a week. There’s a lot gone wrong. But I’m still smiling with that quiet confidence.

“I’d much rather start 33rd with a good car, than start on pole without one.”

An Andretti Autosport win on Sunday would follow the form from a magical month of May that has seen the team win – or score big – quite a bit.

Tanner Foust swept the two Red Bull Global Rallycross races in Phoenix for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross.

The Amlin Andretti Formula E squad bagged a double points finish in the most recent FIA Formula E Championship race with Robin Frijns and Simona de Silvestro, its first of the season.

And on Friday, Dean Stoneman entered the IMS record books with a win by just 0.0024 of a second over Ed Jones in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100. It marked the closest finish in track history. For good measure, Stoneman’s teammates Dalton Kellett and Shelby Blackstock were a season-best third and fourth.

An Andretti Autosport win on Sunday would be its fifth in the Indianapolis 500, with the other three Jacques Villeneuve (1995), Dan Wheldon (2005), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Hunter-Reay (2014). Villeneuve’s was as Forsythe/Green Racing, which later morphed into Andretti Green Racing, which later became Andretti Autosport.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”