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Chilton emerges P6, mixed in among veterans on Watkins Glen grid

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – The top five on the grid for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ penultimate round, the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen presented by Hitachi (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), are all 35 years of age or more and debuted in IndyCar at least a decade ago (from 1998 to 2005), if not earlier.

Then there’s rookie Max Chilton, the Formula One veteran in his maiden IndyCar campaign, who was the only one of the young bucks to break the trend of experience at the top of the grid and will roll off sixth on Sunday at Watkins Glen International.

Chilton, who’s wearing a James Hunt throwback tribute helmet this weekend, turned in his best road or street course performance of the season to end sixth in qualifying. It’s his best start on a road or street course this year, supplanting seventh place at the similar, picturesque Road America when he felt as though he was hindered by traffic and just missed advancing.

The Chip Ganassi Racing Teams quartet of cars has been strong all weekend and three of them made it through to the Firestone Fast Six, with Scott Dixon continuing his weekend pace for pole and and Tony Kanaan in fifth.

The driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, meanwhile, noted how much he’s got on with the 3.37-mile circuit that bares a strong resemblance to many of the classic road courses he raced in F1.

“They haven’t been here in recent years, but they’ve got plenty of experience here, and it makes everything easier,” Chilton said. “I already felt more at home coming to this track just because it’s such a fantastic track. It matches or has a lot of similarities to my favorite circuit, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, so it’s just fast, flowing, undulating very picturesque track, and I think everything together with Gallagher giving me a good car, it just came together.

“It wasn’t easy. It was definitely — I was surprised how close it was for such a big track, so there’s still a lot that could have gone wrong. Also we didn’t really know whether the red or the black was going to be quicker, and actually there wasn’t much in it anyway. Yeah, we got it all together, and it was nice to get a solid qualifying result together.”

While the qualifying for Chilton’s been respectable, his race results haven’t yet measured up. His Road America race went awry when he ran out of fuel at one point. His best result on a road or street course this year is 14th on two occasions, Long Beach and the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

“This circuit just stood out to me, and Road America is more what I’m used to, the faster flowing, especially here the lovely smooth surface. I’ve been brought up with nice tracks, so it’s a bit of a shock to the system when you come to bumpy surfaces. It was nice to drive here with a smoother circuit. Yeah, circuits do suit certain drivers, and this suits me like Elkhart Lake. The fast flowing corners I just prefer.

“It paid off today, as well, like it did in Road America. But the Road America race went awfully badly, so hopefully we can change that tomorrow.”

Polesitter Dixon praised Chilton’s performance.

“It’s good to see Max doing well. I think it’s definitely an eye-opener, I think, coming to the Verizon IndyCar Series, and especially if you’re a rookie,” Dixon said.

“You don’t get much additional time. You don’t really get many additional tests. It’s an extremely steep learning curve, and I think road courses like here at the Glen, he’s probably more used to as opposed to a bumpy street course or low-grip tracks that these cars are pretty tricky at.

“For me it’s been great to see him have a consistent weekend, a weekend that you can now see he’s getting confident in the car. Haven’t got to chat to him too much. I think all four cars have been pretty similar on setup actually, so it’s been a nice weekend for a lot of us to run in the same direction and hopefully keep moving in that way.”

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).