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Michael Andretti: ‘We must be the best Honda team’

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Andretti Autosport is banking on a couple of its offseason engineering changes and motivation throughout its four-car driver lineup to reassert itself within the Verizon IndyCar Series after a challenging 2016 season.

Outside of the month of May in Indianapolis, where Alexander Rossi won the 100th Indianapolis 500, Andretti Autosport struggled as a team last season, primarily on the road and street courses.

By the season finale at Sonoma Raceway though, the team had made some setup gains and was firmly in contention with all four cars.

Team principal Michael Andretti is setting his sights on being “best in class” first, as with 13 Hondas compared to only eight Chevrolets, there’s already a lot of other teams with the same aero kit and manufacturer to get ahead of before making an outright challenge to the Chevrolet teams.

Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport both field four cars, while Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing (two cars each) and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (one) make up the balance of the 13 Hondas.

“I think it’s going to come down to the race tracks. Certain tracks I think we can be more competitive than others. So it’s that,” Andretti told my colleague Luke Smith at this weekend’s FIA Formula E Buenos Aires ePrix, where the Amlin Andretti team competed in the third round of that season.

“But I think our goal as a team is that we must be the best Honda team, and get our licks in when we can with the rest of it.

“Still our goal is obviously we want to repeat at Indy again and win the championship. I think we still have the team to do it. But we have to have a trouble-free year.”

Andretti himself will move off the strategist’s box for the first time in 2017, which sees him and Marco Andretti separate from that standpoint after years together. This primarily frees up Michael Andretti to be at other series events where his team competes, whether in Formula E or Red Bull Global Rallycross, if there are conflict weekends between it and IndyCar (there are several).

With Eric Bretzman brought on board as technical director for Andretti Autosport, it also will free up Ryan Hunter-Reay’s engineer and race strategist, Ray Gosselin, to focus solely on the No. 28 DHL Honda instead of being the overall engineering head for the team.

“I think his mental bandwidth will be freed up for the 28,” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports at the Phoenix test.

Michael Andretti, who hailed the team chemistry preseason last year, said things are better within the operation this year as it looks ahead to the season.

Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti are motivated to bounce back from tough years, Alexander Rossi now has a year of experience under his belt and a good relationship with both his new strategist (Rob Edwards) and engineer (Jeremy Milless) and Takuma Sato joins from A.J. Foyt Enterprises looking to impress in a big team.

“I feel really good. We’ve made changes in our team but I think we’ve made really positive changes that I think have strengthened our team,” Michael Andretti said. “I’m very excited where that’s at. It’s going to come down to execution.”

The team will again run five cars at the Indianapolis 500, with the fifth car the subject of much interest from a mix of both ‘500 veterans and up-and-coming younger talents who’ve made some splashes in IndyCar.

While nothing is settled on that front, Andretti is confident a deal can be reached sooner rather than later.

“It’s coming together. We have about four or five different options that we’re working on. Hopefully in the next couple we’ll have something,” he said.

Scott Dixon fastest on the second day of Indianapolis 500 practice

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Scott Dixon was fastest on the second day of Indy 500 practice Thursday, turning a lap at 226.102 mph in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Takuma Sato was second, followed by Marco Andretti, Conor Daly and rookie Alex Palou.

The rest of the top 10 were: Colton Herta, Charlie Kimball, James Hinchcliffe, Fernando Alonso and James Davison.

THURSDAY PRACTICE: Click here for Day 2 speeds at Indianapolis

COMBINED SPEEDS: Click here for the overall speeds from the first two days

The session had one incident as Alonso crashed with just less than an hour left in the session. The Arrow McLaren SP driver was optimistic that the car could be repaired without a backup.

Among the other notables on the speed chart Thursday: Ryan Hunter-Reay (11th); Tony Kanaan (14th); Helio Castroneves (16th); Josef Newgarden (18th); Graham Rahal (19th); Will Power (23rd); Alexander Rossi (26th) and defending race winner Simon Pagenaud (27th).

Felix Rosenqvist (24th) and rookie Dalton Kellett turned the most laps (141) around the 2.5-mile oval.

Teams mostly focused on race setup Thursday as they will receive 80 extra horsepower in the “Fast Friday” practice that will feature speeds above 230 mph for qualifying Saturday and Sunday.

The Indy 500 will take place Aug. 23; coverage begins at 1 p.m. ET on NBC with the green flag at 2:30 p.m.

HOW TO WATCH THE INDY 500 ON NBCDetails for the Aug. 23 race

DAILY INDY 500 SCHEDULEClick here for all on-track activity in August at Indy