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Zach Veach ticks all the right boxes in Barber debut weekend

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On paper, starting and finishing 19th in one race is nothing impressive. Zach Veach’s weekend at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was not something that can merely be categorized as “by the books,” though.

The 22-year-old rookie out of Stockdale, Ohio made all the right progression throughout his first full weekend in the Verizon IndyCar Series, a confidence booster that saw him improve methodically with each passing session and then finish all 90 laps in his race debut.

Veach was called up as an injury fill-in for JR Hildebrand, sidelined after sustaining a broken bone in his left hand on the last lap at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, to drive the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on the notoriously difficult, physical Barber Motorsports Park circuit.

Despite starting a bit off the mark by current, entirely compressed IndyCar standards where a second usually covers the entire field, Veach closed the gap to the overall leader from 2.5 seconds in first practice to 2 in the second, and down to 1.7 by qualifying. Similarly, he closed on teammate Spencer Pigot in each session as well, from 1.5 off in first practice to 1.1 in the second, 0.8 in the third and just 0.5 in qualifying.

More to the point, he stayed out of trouble with no major mistakes on or off track, and his Ed Carpenter Racing team was smart to not run him in the treacherous rain and damp conditions in Sunday morning warmup. Hildebrand, too, took Veach under his wing playing mentor and coach in a weekend he didn’t expect to be sidelined – but was gracious as ever.

Veach ran as high as fourth in the race off-sequence on the first stint, and his only major faux pas was when he came back into the pits on a closed pit following a restart and took additional service. That netted him a drive-through and probably cost him about two spots, but it was hardly an egregious error.

“Overall, I’m pretty happy with our first Verizon IndyCar Series weekend,” said Veach, who was participating in his first IndyCar running since a single test day with ECR at Sonoma last September.

“For what it was coming in here on short notice and a limited amount of time to get familiar with the car, I’m really happy with the progress that we made. I couldn’t have done it without the help of JR Hildebrand and the entire crew at Ed Carpenter Racing.”

Although Veach co-drove in a two-plus hour IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship sports car race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2015 in a JDC-Miller Motorsports Prototype Challenge car, he hadn’t run a race as long as this one on his own in his career. All the races he’d run in Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires races between Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 since 2010 were an hour or less.

“Everyone here was so open to helping get me up to speed,” he said. “They helped me from Lap 1 all the way to the end of the race. This was the longest race I’ve ever done in my life and part of that was learning how to save fuel and doing my first real race pit stops. Overall, I’m pretty happy with how it went. Granted, I think we would have loved to have a little more speed, but with the amount of time I had in the car, to come home where we did I think says a lot!”

Veach now has a full race under his belt before he debuts at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, in a third Chevrolet-powered entry for AJ Foyt Racing.

The Ed Carpenter Racing driver lineup will again be a story this week heading into Saturday’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Hildebrand is hoping to be cleared to drive but if not, it remains to be seen whether Veach will get another shot, or whether Pigot gets a call-up for what would be only his second oval start in an IndyCar. Team owner Carpenter is slated to make his first start of 2017 next weekend in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. On Sunday, Pigot ran as high as fourth after starting 17th but had a spin off Turn 5 that cost him a likely second straight top-10 result, having run eighth most of his second stint.

Veach now joins the list of young guns with recent Indy Lights experience – Matthew Brabham, RC Enerson and Stefan Wilson among others – with only a handful of IndyCar starts under their belt awaiting a full-time shot, but can now say he is an IndyCar driver for life.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Road America

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Here’s what IndyCar drivers had to say – courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations – after Friday’s two practice sessions at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think we are relatively pleased. The car has been easy to work with, which is great. It is nice when you don’t have to change too much. We’ve been trying things to make sure we understand sort of both ends of the car and where it can go if we adjust either end of it. Seems quick right out of the box. We haven’t had to do too much with it. The Chevy package is working really well, which I felt like it would be strong at this kind of track. We’ve been working hard with that group to make sure our power down and everything else is great. So far, so good with the Verizon car. We have a solid start; we just have to maintain it throughout the weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Pretty productive day. Obviously, we tested here last week, which I think helped us roll off with a solid car. For Practice 2, we decided to go in a little different direction with our setup, just to try and cover our bases, so we have a lot of data to look over tonight. We have pretty good pace on the blacks (primary Firestone tires) and were into the top five, but when we put the reds (alternate Firestone tires) on, we just didn’t find the grip that we normally do; we’ll look into that. This Arrow Electronics SPM team’s got a way of turning things around and being strong in qualifying, so hopefully, we can do that and get the job done tomorrow.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I think it was a pretty decent Friday. The Lucas Oil car feels good and we’re making good progress. We were top five in both sessions, but it’s only Friday, so we still have to work hard and keep our heads down. Initial signs are pretty positive for, hopefully, a good weekend.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I think we started a little bit slow for some reason and had some work to do after the first practice session here at Road America. We know our way around here though, and after some changes tonight, I hope we can have the PNC Bank car pointed in the right direction, and closer to the top time the other manufacturer set.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m obviously not thrilled with the results today with the First Data Honda, but we know Scott (Dixon) had a great car here last year and won the race, so there is good data to look at tonight. We have some work to do for sure, but I’m confident in our team that we can find what we were missing today in practice and be ready for qualifying tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “We definitely changed the setup a bit, then went back. I think the track had really low grip at the beginning of every session, then got better. Kind of a little bit hard to pick what to do. But obviously, Josef (Newgarden) is really quick, so got plenty of data to look at. We’ll just keep working away at it.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “It was a good finish to the day for the GEHL team. We pushed hard and made some changes between the sessions and I think we went the right direction. This morning we had some mishaps, and unfortunately, it lost us the session, but we had a good recovery. We’ll try to keep improving the car a little bit and see what we can do in qualifying.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda): “(I’m) pretty happy. I think, obviously, we didn’t test, a couple of guys did. Felt a little bit off this morning. We’re pretty confident because it was just mostly understeer in the car. Just pretty happy with the day. Our guys did a good job. The Firestone red (alternate) tires are definitely giving a huge amount of grip in comparison to the prime. But for us, it really wasn’t much of a balance change, so that was nice. Could definitely get a pretty decent run. Consistency was quite good, as well. Looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s awesome driving an Indy car here. I love the Road America track and I’m excited to be back here. We had a tough second session today in our Paysafe car, but we made big improvements from our first practice, which is really encouraging. What Sebastien (Bourdais) has seems to be working really well, so we’ll look at that and also at what I need to work on to improve. With that and some steady improvements, we should be looking good for tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It is quite difficult to learn the circuit, relative to others that I have driven on. For example, St. Pete, it just felt a little bit easier to pick up the smaller parts. I feel quite comfortable in the car now, but it took a bit longer to get there in this morning’s session. It’s a longer circuit and requires a lot of confidence with the high speed and blind corners; when it’s only 45 minutes, you end up eating into your track time. I felt quite good in this afternoon’s session and we have a better idea of what direction we want to go in. A little bit annoying we haven’t quite jumped on it straight away, still a bit of progress to be made. Looking forward to having a good night’s sleep. I always find that when you are able to chill out, think about it, and sleep well it makes the second day much nicer. We all know where we need to go with the car and should be quicker tomorrow.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “It was a pretty difficult day for us. We are kind of struggling to zero in on the balance and the setup that we want. We know what we need the car to do, we just have to try and find a way of getting it there. We are going to try and find some things overnight, then get the Direct Supply car handling a bit better and get more speed out of it tomorrow.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We’ve made big improvement this weekend. It is obviously another very important weekend with Menards on the car. This is John’s (Menard) country here. I am eager to do very well, and the whole No. 22 team is using the momentum we gained at Texas. It feels like a really good weekend so far. I think we have more in the car; I didn’t extract all the best out of during practice. But, it felt really good. Chevy is giving us a lot of power around here which is always useful on those long straightaways. Now we are just going to have to put it all together in qualifying tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Obviously, that wasn’t the day we wanted for the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet. We’re struggling for balance and grip-a little bit of both. But we’ve got some good ideas, good data to look through and some concepts to think about. We’ll make solid, reasonable, intelligent changes for tomorrow. Hopefully, we can pick a good direction out of that and be ready for qualifying.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Overall, it was a pretty good day for us in the Relay car. We know, confidently, that we have a car good enough to be in the top 10, maybe in the top six. We’re fighting a bit of an issue throughout the second session, but we know what that is, so we’ll fix it and get the speed we need tomorrow. I haven’t felt this confident in an Indy car yet – but I said that at Detroit and I said that at Texas. I really just feel like we are coming into our own and this is going to be our best weekend yet.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Today wasn’t the best Friday that we’ve had. I think we are stepping through changes and making small improvements, but we didn’t find the big improvement that we need, which is disappointing. Fortunately, we have another session tomorrow and three teammate cars to try and put our heads together and come up with a solution. Right now, we need a pretty big step in performance to be fighting for pole.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We made some progress with the DHL car today, we need to make another step tomorrow. We didn’t really have a clear lap, but if we had, I think we would have been around P4 or P5 and we can work from there. We’ll put our heads down tonight, check in with the teammates and see where we are at tomorrow. We have one more session before qualifying and we’ll put it to good use.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was a good day, a productive one. We wanted to improve a little more than we did in the second session, but overall, we tried a few things and we learned a few good things and a few not so good. I think we can continue improving for tomorrow.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today was going pretty well until the last practice. The day started off well for us. I was happy with the balance and I am still happy with the balance. We worked on some changes and I was happy with the direction we were going in. The second practice was going pretty good up until my incident. It is really unfortunate we have now lost this track time, but we will work hard and bounce back for tomorrow.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “It was a challenging day at the office here at Road America for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet. This is one of my favorite tracks – I know I can pedal a car around here pretty well. We were fighting for top six last year, so I’m trying to just drive the same, obviously, with less downforce. We’ve got an underlying balance issue – whether it’s new tires or old tires, it’s really just wherever we are, we’ve got the same issue that we just can’t seem to iron out. It’s slightly frustrating for a new team with the lack of testing we’ve been able to do, so we’ve got limited time to try and sort it. We’ll work it out tonight and if we can make some significant progress toward the end of FP3, I’m sure we can have a fairly decent qualifying.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a great track and a lot of fun. Today was a bit challenging, as we are just working through our plan, but we found a big chunk of time between Practice 1 and Practice 2 today. That is very encouraging as we get ready for Practice 3 tomorrow. There are some things we are going to try out and that will hopefully take us to the next step to doing a great job in qualifying and then the race.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “I was definitely happier with the car this morning. We kind of went in a different direction for the afternoon session and lost the car. We definitely have a clear direction on where we need to go and we’ll put that to use to go forward tomorrow with the U.S. Concrete car.”

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