Andretti Autosport’s street course program comes alive at St. Pete

Marco Andretti (27) and Takuma Sato (26) in St. Pete. Photo: IndyCar
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One race does not a complete year-to-year turnaround make, but it’s safe to say Andretti Autosport had a significantly better opening weekend to kick off its 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season than it did this time last year.

Although the team didn’t get on the podium as it did with Ryan Hunter-Reay last year, all four Andretti Autosport cars were more competitive over the weekend. All four cars qualified within the top 15 and finished in the top 11 in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The first stat doesn’t sound like much but considering Marco Andretti only made it outside the bottom three rows on a road or street course twice last year – starting 14th at both St. Petersburg and Sonoma – it was a solid achievement. And there were far too many occasions last year for the whole team, owing to a deficit in overall mechanical grip, struggled to break into the top 15 and would all line up from 14th or 15th on back with all four cars.

Hunter-Reay’s Sunday was a roller coaster in the No. 28 DHL Honda and at a track he’s traditionally done well at, ending fourth after his brake failure-induced morning warm-up crash and first lap power woes was a significant result.

Takuma Sato came fifth in his No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda, same as he started after making the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday, which itself came after a possible brake-related issue sent him into the wall Friday afternoon in practice.

This marked Andretti Autosport’s first double top-five finish on a street course since Detroit race one 2015, when Carlos Munoz and Andretti finished 1-2 in a rain-shortened, strategy-affected race.

Those were the good finishes and yet for Andretti, who ended seventh in the No. 27 hhgregg Honda after starting 15th and Alexander Rossi, 11th in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda after starting eighth, these were probably the two drivers who could have ended even higher.

Andretti ran in the top three earlier in the race after the Lap 26 yellow flag caused following contact between Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin, having vaulted there on the first notable strategic move from Bryan Herta since going onto Andretti’s No. 27 timing stand. He fell back during the race as he had to save fuel and his brake pedal was too close to him throughout the rest of the event, and caused him to cramp up a bit. It’s crazy to note the seventh was better than Andretti finished every race last year, when his best was eighth.

Rossi’s day was compromised by the yellow as he hadn’t pitted yet and fell from sixth back down the order. He eventually made it back to 11th, but with a slow puncture limiting his forward progress. Like Andretti, Rossi was happy with his new strategist, in Andretti’s Rob Edwards.

The out-of-the-box good result for Andretti and Honda may have been overlooked by Dale Coyne Racing winning for the manufacturer and with Chip Ganassi Racing hogging most of the offseason headlines with its highly publicized switch from Chevrolet to Honda. But that makes it no less important.

The early cohesion between the new elements from an operational standpoint are important to note, with Eric Bretzman stepping in as technical director thus allowing Ray Gosselin to focus exclusively on Hunter-Reay’s engineering car, the aforementioned strategist switch, and new engineers for Sato (Garret Mothershead, who he’d worked with before) and Rossi (Jeremy Milless, coming over from Ed Carpenter Racing) respectively.

“We made a lot of changes,” Michael Andretti explained during a Friday media availability. “Ray Gosselin used to be our technical director and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s engineer. Eric Bretzman who used to be in NASCAR with Ganassi is here, and that takes a lot of pressure off Ray. We brought in Jeremy as well. We have a lot of time for him. We made some changes within the team, and I think we made it much better.”

Rossi, who was newest to the team a year ago, outlined how different the mentality at the team is year-to-year, compared to how Hunter-Reay and Andretti are team veterans while Sato was in his first race weekend since joining Andretti Autosport this offseason.

“I think it’s just less running around to be honest and less chaos,” Rossi explained to NBC Sports during that availability. “Last year not only was I new as you know, but everyone was in new roles. It was a really stressful first weekend. Now we know what we’re trying to achieve.

“I miss (Bryan), but that’s OK. He’s still co-owner of the car, so he’s pretty involved with what’s happening with me. But Rob is amazing, I worked a lot with Rob last year away from the track, learning how Andretti Autosport and IndyCar worked. Bryan was in California.”

Marco Andretti, too, hailed his respective new additions in separate conversations.

“He’s fantastic. It’s what we needed in the team,” the youngest Andretti said of Bretzman. “I talked to him a lot in the offseason. He really includes us in the development process.”

Of Herta he said pre-race: “He is so good at working through to make big problems, little problems. He helps turn mountains into molehills.” After the race, he said, “That was big… still, as much as it helped we had to save (fuel) all race. I didn’t run one flat out lap. We got a gift. It’s better to be lucky than good, but we want to be both all year.”

For once, Andretti Autosport as a team was both, and the fact they had a good St. Petersburg weekend and could afford to be disappointed with four cars ending in the top 11 is a very positive sign for the rest of the season.

Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

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Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”