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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.

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).