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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.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”