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Strategist shuffle set to take place in Andretti’s 2017 lineup

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With the four-car lineup confirmed for Andretti Autosport’s Verizon IndyCar Series program following Takuma Sato’s official announcement, attention turns to the personnel fielding those cars.

With the signings of Eric Bretzman and Jeremy Milless to bolster the overall engineering side of the team, and with Milless replacing the departed Tom German as Alexander Rossi’s race engineer, there’s also a strategist shuffle that appears set to take part.

Although team principal Michael Andretti stopped short of formally confirming he’ll step off the box for son Marco in his No. 27 hhgregg Honda next year, he said barring any unexpected changes that’s what’s going to happen.

Since Andretti Autosport has multiple race programs in other series – the team has won the last two Red Bull Global Rallycross titles with Volkswagen, then has a two-car FIA Formula E and at least three, possibly four-car Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires effort – Andretti said he needs to be available to miss IndyCar weekends occasionally if there’s conflicts.

“It hasn’t been 100 percent confirmed, but it looks like it’s going that way,” Andretti told NBC Sports.

“It’s been a real challenge being a strategist and team owner; not only being a team owner in other series, but it never gave me the flexibility to miss an IndyCar race. There were a couple times where I couldn’t get to other events. It’s important for the overall team.”

As a case in point even though this isn’t directly IndyCar-related, the FIA Formula E new season opener was in Hong Kong the weekend of October 8-9, while the Red Bull GRC season finale was in Los Angeles the same weekend.

Andretti opted to be in LA there to watch Scott Speed edge Tanner Foust for his second straight Red Bull GRC program, while JF Thormann was Andretti’s lead team representative in Hong Kong at FE. Andretti expects to attend the next FE round in Buenos Aires, which isn’t until February 18, 2017.

With FE’s season shifting into the spring and summer of 2017, there are several IndyCar/FE conflicts. Red Bull GRC is yet to release its 2017 calendar.

Anyway, with Andretti set to step off the strategist box, he all but indicated Bryan Herta will move over to Marco Andretti’s car, and that Rob Edwards (director of race operations and engineering) would move to Rossi’s No. 98 car. Edwards was on the No. 26 car for Carlos Munoz this year, and his departure there, if it’s confirmed, would leave a vacancy on the No. 26 box for Takuma Sato.

“I love having Bryan on board,” Michael Andretti said. “Having him there, if it works out that way, is that he and Marco are very close. It’d be really positive. I know Bryan would be up for the challenge in trying to improve that side.

“If that happens… then where we’re leaning is that it could be Rob on Rossi. That’d be good. Rossi would seem to be happy.”

Andretti said one of the challenges in being a strategist is that it’s one of the most important positions on a race weekend, and being split between strategist and team owner roles causes something of a loss of focus.

The rise of Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing the last two years can be attributed to multiple things, including the fact Rahal’s dad Bobby Rahal stepped off the box in 2015 and let Ricardo Nault take over in that role.

“What would I miss about it? Not a lot, quite honestly!” Andretti admitted.

“It wasn’t my favorite thing to do. But I think, because of my experience, you can feel and see a race. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of guys out there that do that. We’re grooming guys to be in that place.”

Andretti did hail the immediate input Milless and Bretzman are having on the overall program. The team’s best road course performance of the year came at the Sonoma season finale in September, and it appears strides are following from there.

“It’s been great. I’m so excited and bullish on next year,” Andretti said. “In our first test with them, we’ve seen big results. There’s a lot more to come. I truly feel we’ll be a lot more competitive.

“We think we’re onto some things. We were onto some things going into Sonoma… and that wasn’t by mistake. We had found some things. We had the sense of where we needed to go. Getting these two in there, backed up where we were going, so that was a positive. I feel good about it.”

Indy Lights: Kyle Kirkwood joins Andretti Autosport

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One of the Road to Indy’s most talented young drivers will climb another step up the development system ladder this season.

Kyle Kirkwood, the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 champion, has signed a contract to race for Andretti Autosport in the 2020 Indy Lights season. Kirkwood will drive the No. 28 car for the reigning championship team.

A native of Jupiter, Florida, 21-year-old Kirkwood has been incredibly successful in junior formulas over the last few years. He won the F4 US Championship 2017 and won both the F3 Americas and USF2000 titles in 2018.

Driving for RP Motorsport Racing, Kirkwood won 9 of 16 races in his maiden Indy Pro 2000 season last year, allowing him to win his fourth championship in three years and earn the Road to Indy scholarship.

“We are very excited about the addition of Kyle to our Indy Lights program,” Andretti Autosport CEO and Chairman Michael Andretti said. “We’ve followed Kyle’s career from when he started in 2018 with the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship and have been impressed with his success in every race that led to his Indy Pro 2000 Championship last year. As a championship-caliber team, Kyle displays the desire and talent that we look for in our drivers and are excited to see him hit the track for the 2020 Indy Lights season.”

Kirkwood previously drove for Andretti in a two-day test session at Sebring International Raceway in December. He will make his official debut for the team in the season-opening doubleheader at St. Petersburg on March 14-15.

“I am ecstatic that I can now say I am competing in Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport this season,” Kirkwood said. “They have established a winning program in Indy Lights and we plan on carrying that reputation throughout 2020.

“We are a fantastic match for each other and our Sebring test in December proved that.”

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