Andretti’s Indy pole quest comes up short for Rossi, RHR, and more

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INDIANAPOLIS – Andretti Autosport entered Sunday with four bullets in the gun to fire for pole position ahead of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. All four came up just short, and a fifth had a qualifying speed which would be good enough to start higher, but never had the opportunity.

Nonetheless, Sunday at Indy was still a great day for the Andretti team, even without the glory of pole position.

Before the running on track even got going there was proper drama in the garage, as it was determined to make a precautionary engine change on Fernando Alonso’s No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry after issues found near the end of pre-qualifying practice.

What followed next was a tour de force by the Andretti crew to get the engine changed in just over an hour to ensure Alonso hit the 4:15 p.m. tech line to be out for the Fast Nine shootout.

Alonso promptly laughed off the concern of a pre-qualifying engine change, given his regular ailments with Honda’s Formula 1 engine at McLaren there.

“As soon as we decided to change the engine, I saw like 20 people around my car changing parts. That was a truly good thing to experience today, how the teamwork plays here. I was extremely proud and happy of them,” Alonso said.

On track, the runs started first when the Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport entry, rookie Jack Harvey in the No. 50 Honda, had a hairy run. Harvey tattooed the wall exiting Turn 2 but kept his foot in it, and completed his run with a four-lap average of 225.742. He’ll start 27th.

After Harvey, the next Andretti driver to run was Ryan Hunter-Reay, who would have had a shot at the pole purely on speed. In fact, his four-lap average of 231.442 mph was the fourth fastest of the day during Sunday qualifying, with only Scott Dixon, Ed Carpenter, and Alexander Rossi eclipsing his No. 28 DHL Honda.

However, struggles during Saturday qualifying meant he wasn’t quick enough to make the Fast Nine shootout (he was 13th fastest on Saturday). As a result, he could do no better than tenth on Sunday qualifying, despite the dramatic increase in speed, and he will start from the inside of the fourth row on May 28.

However, Hunter-Reay has proven he can win from deep in the field. His 2014 triumph came after he started 19th, and he cracked the top ten in the first stint that year.

Hunter-Reay, therefore, is well-versed in working his way through traffic, and is confident he can do the same thing on race day.

“It was a wild ride. Testament to the team that put a good car together; it’s been that way for a good week and one-half. We just had a bad draw in qualifying, going early when the sun was out yesterday compared to a lot of guys who made it into the Fast Nine later in the day with the clouds came out,” he said. “We did our homework on that one. It was close. That was not a nice four laps; it was on edge. Big time, white knuckle, I’m just catching my breath now.”

It then came time for the quartet of Andretti drivers in the Fast Nine. Marco Andretti was unable to break out of eighth place, but it still sets him up decently in the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda entry on Sunday.

Next up was Alonso, with the fresh motor. He went out at over 231 mph for his run, and was pleased – but ultimately fell to fifth.

Rossi followed with an even better run, which eclipsed Alonso’s best time. He’ll start third next Sunday as he prepares to defend his shock win of a year ago. While this is the best career start for the driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda in IndyCar – his previous best was fifth at Long Beach earlier this year – it still feels like a slightly missed chance for the native of Nevada City, Calif.

“I’m always disappointed if you’re not in front, but I think it’s a good effort from the team. Seeing Scott’s speed is pretty impressive,” he said. “I know we couldn’t have done that. We’ve got to be content with the front row. It was something that really bothered me last year and for a year actually that we didn’t make the Fast Nine, so yesterday was a pretty big relief, and today was just about trying to go as high up as possible.

“Front row is good. You can win this race from anywhere, so it’s a good place to be, no dirty air, and we’ll just get the race off to a strong start and see where it goes.”

Lastly Takuma Sato, who was second on Saturday, was then second-to-last out on Sunday in the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda. He nearly hit the wall a couple times on the run but still ended in fourth place, courtesy of his “no attack, no chance” style that sees him with a best Indianapolis 500 starting position to date. His previous best, also achieved with current engineer Garrett Mothershead, came in 2011 with KV Racing Technology when he started 10th.

“We were pushing so hard – Lap 3 and 4 were so on edge and I brushed the wall, but held on. I’m very happy to be in the second row, obviously, the front row would be nicer but this was a great team effort. I am very happy with where we are starting.”

Great qualifying positions are nice to write about but they haven’t even been a complete precursor for Andretti’s four ‘500 wins.

Rossi started 11th last year, Hunter-Reay 19th in 2014, Dario Franchitti 3rd in 2007 and Dan Wheldon 16th in 2005.

With spots of third, fourth, fifth, eighth, 10th and 27th on the grid, Andretti will look for more success next Sunday with its six-pack of drivers – even if a pole evaded them today.

Kyle Lavigne assisted on report of this story

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”