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Motivation, work ethic runs deep for a Marco Andretti turnaround in ’17

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The last time Marco Andretti finished 16th in the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings, after the 2012 campaign, he went into the offseason entirely motivated to work harder, dig deeper, and look at the ways to improve to re-establish himself in the series’ upper echelon.

What followed in 2013 was something of a tour de force and massive turnaround, with two podiums and three additional top-seven finishes in the first five races, to where he was leading the points after the Indianapolis 500.

Andretti ultimately ended a career-best fifth in points with at least two (Milwaukee and Pocono) and probably more potential wins that went begging through no fault of his own, but still had completed one of the biggest year-to-year turnarounds in recent history.

So with that as the blueprint, Andretti’s 2016 season saw him again finish 16th in points. This stands out because in 11 full-time seasons, and 183 starts, Andretti has finished in the top-10 in points in eight of them.

And the goal now is that Andretti won’t – can’t – look back at what went wrong and must channel the same ability to recapture that title-contending and race-winning form.

The introspection and belief that he can be better, and has to forget the bad of 2016, is what will drive the driver of the No. 27 hhgregg Honda for Andretti Autosport next season.

Marco Andretti's visit to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health on Dec. 13, 2016. (Photos by IU Health/Mike Dickbernd)
Marco Andretti’s visit to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health on Dec. 13, 2016. (Photos by IU Health/Mike Dickbernd)

“I’m not running from the season I just had. I’m staring it in the face to be better,” Andretti told NBC Sports, following an event at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis where he presented mini helmets to sick children.

“From driving coaches to simulators, to everything I could do on the mental side to be sharp. To show up ready at St. Petersburg. It’s been extremely productive.

“From the team side, testing and development. Our new hires are awesome. They’re really listening to drivers… and addressing the complaints. There are some things I need to deal with better. We have to get the cars working better. We’re all doing our part. I think the gains can be huge because of that. If every one of us makes a gain, it will be big.”

In looking ahead to the offseason, Andretti said he needs to put in more physical work and readapt his driving style slightly.

“A lot of what I did between ’12 and ’13, I need to go back to,” he explained. “I’m not gonna be outworked this offseason by any single driver. Physically – the physical training – is putting in the work.”

Andretti’s month-long miss at the Indianapolis 500 sticks out. At a race that he’s usually a win contender all month, the No. 27 crew didn’t match the remaining four entries under the Andretti Autosport stable this year, and he admitted that stuck with him the rest of the year. After qualifying 14th, a 13th place marked his worst finish in the nine times he’s finished the race of the 11 times he’s started.

“From the mental side, I let Indianapolis ruin the rest of my season. I was extremely frustrated, and drove that way,” he explained.

“For me to go fast, I have to pull back a little. I was overdriving the car. I’m sure people think, if you’re slow, go faster… when in fact it may be the opposite.

“Bad as it all looked this year, I can’t wait to get to work to make it better.”

The changes coming to Andretti Autosport for next year includes the hire of Eric Bretzman as new technical director, while Bryan Herta – Andretti’s past teammate in his first full IndyCar season of 2006 – is set to replace Michael Andretti on the strategist box. Nathan O’Rourke continues as Andretti’s lead race engineer.

On the commercial side, hhgregg has stepped up in a multi-year agreement. Events like Tuesday’s at the Riley Hospital were put together by hhgregg, who plan to activate around both driver and team, which is something Marco Andretti says he likes.

Suffice to say the younger Andretti is bullish on both fronts.

“I’m thankful to hhgregg who set this up for me. I plan on doing more of this,” Andretti explained.

“Any chance you get to give back to the city that’s given me so much, means a lot to me. It’s a tough thing to see, because these kids are pretty admirable with what they go through. The pleasure was all mine.

“I want to start with saying I have a great respect for Bryan. It’s hard to smile when you’re not winning races,” he added.

“But still, I have to express how grateful I am to be in this position. You’re only going to get back up front if you don’t let the negatives compound, and to be honest, it’d be easy to let it spiral out of control.

“I’m really excited to be working with Bryan. Dad was great at calling races, but sometime it’s a hectic work environment, and no one wants to make mistakes. Every one of these guys is extremely talented.”

Andretti said keeping his mental focus sharp will be key next season.

“You don’t want to look back, because then you drive frustrated,” he said. “My whole career there’s been races I was in command to win. I only have two wins, but (almost) 1,000 laps led (he has 990 in his career, going without leading one for first time ever in 2016).

“It’s frustrating to think of those things. But my goal is to only look forward.

“A buddy of mine put it good the other day. He goes, ‘If you win Indy, is it worth it?’ You’re darn right it is.

“Workout training is what helps me the best. I’m still only thinking about the sport. There are times you need to unwind to extract the best. That’s easier said than done.

“But I know how I’m looked at. So I’m going to work harder, and I’m gonna take a ‘Me against the world’ approach. Once I can prevail, it’ll feel better.”

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

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