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PREVIEW: Firestone 600 at Texas

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ rather draining run of five races in as many weekends – plus qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 on the one non-race weekend – comes to a conclusion with this Saturday evening’s Firestone 600 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Here’s what to look out for in the ninth round of the season, the third of five ovals and the first race in the second half of the 16-race calendar:

2016 Firestone 600 – Talking Points

Domed skids, Round 2

After really not having much of an impact at the Indianapolis 500, how the “infamous” domed skids play at a track with higher banking and will they make cars more difficult to drive figures to be a talking point this weekend. Following the test in May, it was still in the crosshairs.

Rossi’s next oval bow

After the Indianapolis 500 win, Alexander Rossi heads to a track that he’s tested at once and already likes, as part of his oval baptism.

“Texas is my favorite oval that I’ve driven on actually,” Rossi said during this week’s IndyCar teleconference. “We had the one test there at the beginning of May, and it was awesome. I really, really enjoyed it. We did a little bit of a group run towards the end of the day, and it was very interesting for me to kind of be on an oval where there were so many different lines. As you said, it’s very high banked, so it’ll make the racing incredibly exciting, and I’m very much looking forward to Saturday night.”

In terms of what the Indy 500 winner has done for a recent encore on the first oval since, here’s the recent results: Juan Pablo Montoya was fourth last year, Ryan Hunter-Reay 19th in 2014 after retiring, Tony Kanaan was third in 2013 and Dario Franchitti was 14th in 2012. Does it forecast anything for Rossi in the now No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda this weekend? Probably not, but it’s still interesting to note.

Pagenaud vs. the field

With his 80-point lead and at a track where he has a couple top-six results but hasn’t really looked the measure of challenging for a win, Simon Pagenaud has a chance to further establish his title credentials with a strong run on IndyCar’ lone 1.5-mile oval this season. If he doesn’t and slips back in the field, it could open the door for Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden and others to make inroads.

The ‘ol tire degradation story, and downforce levels

How much and how fast the Firestone tires fall off over a course of a stint has become a big part of Texas Motor Speedway races the last few years, since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis. Combined with downforce selections, these two items will help tell the tale on Saturday night.

The final word

Hunter-Reay has a good assessment on the challenge of Texas: “Getting a win at Texas Motor Speedway for the DHL Honda is at the top of my list. This track can be very tricky to get the setup just right, so as a four-car team, we’ll all be working together to prepare the best setup we can for race day.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, June 10
11 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, NBCSN (Live)
3:15 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single car/cumulative time of two laps), NBCSN (6 p.m. ET)
6:45 – 7:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, (Live)

Saturday, June 11
4 p.m. – Systems check
7:06 p.m. – Driver Introductions
7:45 p.m. – Command to Start Engines
7:50 p.m. – Firestone 600 (248 laps/360.84 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10: 

1. Scott Dixon
2. Tony Kanaan
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Juan Pablo Montoya
5. Marco Andretti
6. Carlos Munoz
7. Charlie Kimball
8. Ryan Briscoe
9. James Jakes
10. Gabby Chaves
13. Will Power (Pole)

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 “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).