Marco Andretti pleased with Friday practice

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Marco Andretti gave his 2017 season an early shot in the arm by turning the fastest lap in opening practice for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He backed it up with the eighth fastest time in the second practice, which put him eighth fastest overall for the day, a solid start after a dismal 2016 season.

Andretti commented that his performance was a result of the Andretti Autosport team getting to grips with the track. He explained, “I just think we did a good job chasing the track. I mean, the track is very low-grip, which is not what we were expecting. We were expecting the new pavement to be higher-grip. Everybody’s sliding around a lot and I think we just did a good job of chasing it.”

Andretti was also quick to credit new technical director Eric Bretzman for improving the team’s engineering efforts. “He’s fantastic. It’s what we needed. I talked to him all through the off-season. I talked to him every week. He really updates me, includes us in development, which is very important. So, it’s very good.”

He was also pleased to run the softer “red” tires on Friday afternoon, a change in policy for Friday practice sessions. “It takes some of the guessing out of it,” he asserted. “A lot of the time, you’d guess wrong on the balance for qualifying. I don’t think it should be a guessing game. So I think that’s good to get a run on them before qualifying.”

One element that could throw a wrench into things is weather. Rain is a possibility for Sunday’s race, but Andretti did not express concern, referencing the need to adapt to changing conditions and the influence teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay has on his mindset. “It’s the same for everybody. We know in Florida sometimes it’s just humid and it goes away,” he said of the weather. “But, we just have to adapt. That’s what Ryan is good at. Where I used to get worked up about things, like (changing) Turn 3, I’d be like ‘Oh man, they’re changing Turn 3,’ and he’d be like ‘I don’t care if tomorrow we run this track upside down. We’re going to conquer it.’ So, it’s a good mindset to have: make big problems into little problems. He definitely helps turn mountains into molehills for me.”

In all, Andretti is confident at the conclusion of Friday’s practices. “I think I’ve made gains. I think Honda has made gains. Our team approach has made gains. If we each make small gains, it could be a big (gain).”

Saturday practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg begins at 10:50 a.m. ET.

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.