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Post-Detroit debut, Gutierrez likely set to continue with Coyne

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DETROIT – Esteban Gutierrez has made his Verizon IndyCar Series weekend debut this morning aboard the No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Honda for the first of what is likely to be a significant number of races at Dale Coyne Racing.

While nothing is confirmed yet, Coyne and Gutierrez are working towards an extension that will see Gutierrez in the car for most, if not all, remaining races as the injury replacement for Sebastien Bourdais until Bourdais’ return.

After the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear this weekend, IndyCar moves to the Texas Motor Speedway oval (Saturday, June 10, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the 1.5-mile oval that could be Gutierrez’s oval debut if he is confirmed for that race.

Coyne unofficially confirmed Gutierrez for Road America during an interview with NBCSN pit reporter Katie Hargitt on the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network during free practice one, as part of a plan to keep the 25-year-old Mexican in further as the year goes on.

“This weekend, he hasn’t tested. Never been in one of these cars. (They’re) his first laps,” Coyne told Hargitt. “This is just a learning weekend. I don’t think until Road America where can actually do a test day that he’ll on his game.”

Asked whether Gutierrez is set to continue the rest of the way, Coyne responded, “That’s the plan.”

Coyne explained to Hargitt why he brought Gutierrez into the team: “We just looked at his resume. He’s won GP3, be third in GP2, which is highly competitive, hard to read F1 resume, because teams are so different. He’s a good friend of Adrian Fernandez, we talked to Adrian about him, said it was pretty easy.”

During his first formal media availability Gutierrez stopped short of confirming himself for further races as well, but strongly hinted he’ll be in a car further races. A special Unifin blue and white firesuit for Coyne with his name on it also highly suggests a busier schedule.

“So far I’m enjoying it a lot, and yeah, I think it’s important to think on Detroit right now,” Gutierrez said. “Hopefully I can do the rest of the season. This is what I want. So yeah, hopefully we can get things organized so that everything goes forward.”

Gutierrez has three would-be Formula E conflicts ahead at Berlin (June 10-11), New York City (July 15-16) and Montreal (July 29-30) with Techeetah. He’s only raced three FE rounds and told NBC Sports that they’re still working out whether he’ll continue in FE for any or all of those three weekends.

Additionally, Gutierrez said he’d be keen to do an IndyCar oval race if the opportunity presents itself. He also took after Fernando Alonso in saying he’s interested in running the Indianapolis 500.

“No, I never have (driven on an oval), and hopefully if I have the chance that I can at least do a test day before that, so that will be important for me to get a feeling,” he said.

“It’s completely new to me, but I’m very keen to learn and to go there and try out. I mean, I’m a racer. I like challenges, so that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

For Indy, Gutierrez took a long pause when asked whether he’d want to be in Monaco or Indianapolis next year on Memorial Day weekend, which elicited a lot of laughs.

“That’s a really good question,” he paused, before saying, “I would love to try the Indy 500.

“I watched the race, and it’s a real racing race. It’s pure driving, pure racing. It requires so many factors around. I mean, I think what Fernando experienced, I know Fernando very well, so I could see a smile on his face all the time, so I could realize that it’s something I have to try.”

This is not Gutierrez’s first time racing in America as he raced in Formula BMW USA in 2007, a year where he beat Alexander Rossi in the championship. He also beat Rossi in the year he won the 2010 GP3 Series, in a year when Josef Newgarden among other notable names also competed.

He hasn’t had much in the way of other drivers saying hi to him yet but only because he just arrived in the U.S. a couple days ago.

“I’ve spoken to a few of them, not everybody because I came very quickly. We just arrived here two days ago,” he said. “But yes, I mean, it seems that it’s very nice to come back to America from 2007 when I was racing Formula BMW here. I know very well tracks like Road America, which is one of my favorite tracks in the world, and I’m very keen to hopefully have the chance to race there again with an IndyCar in the following races.

“But yeah, regarding the drivers I competed with, it’s going to come natural. I mean, obviously being here, spending more time here, I will be able to speak with them. It’s been a long time, so many years in between, so I’m sure we can share a lot of experiences.”

It’s quite a baptism by bumps for Gutierrez in Detroit, as he called it the bumpiest track he’s ever raced on.

“It’s probably one of the trickiest tracks in the calendar, so it’s been quite enjoyable to get there in the IndyCar for the first time, getting to know the car,” he said.

“It’s a little bit bumpier than the video footage I had from the previous year. I was pleased to get on track and to say, okay, it’s not as bad as I saw on the videos.

“But definitely it’s something new for me. I mean, to have this amount of bumps, you know, the changes of the surface, you have concrete, you have asphalt, you have — everything is changing so the tires are reacting differently, so obviously it’s another factor on top of learning the car is also to learn the differences between the surfaces.

“Obviously my first goal right now is to feel comfortable, to learn. I have a great team behind me supporting me, giving me all the available information for me to get up to speed as quick as possible, right, because we know that coming from a Formula 1 experience, from Formula E, takes a bit of time to get used to a different car, especially coming into a weekend where there is quite few practice and track time.”

Gutierrez only had one session but has hailed the Dallara DW12 chassis and Honda power unit as well, in noting how similar the cars are across the board compared to F1.

“It’s more natural. The cars are pretty much equal between the teams, and that gives you the opportunity to show or let’s say to do more as a driver and to influence more on that side,” he said.

“Also the level of communication with the engineers to fine tune the car, suiting the driver — the driving style. Also — I mean, yeah, in general, yeah, I’m very happy, and the fact that you have no power steering makes it also very different.

“You have so much feedback from the car. The feeling really is much harder, but it’s much better because you get the feedback that you have from the tires, from the car, from the movements, the vibrations, and this helps you a lot to understand the car better. Not many buttons to think about.”

Gutierrez will be back in action for his second practice later this afternoon.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is all-in in bid to win second IndyCar championship

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The third time has truly been the charm for Ryan Hunter-Reay.

After back-to-back mediocre seasons in 2016 and 2017, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida resident is back where he belongs in 2018: in the hunt for what he hopes is his second Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Hunter-Reay won the title in 2012. But he suffered through a 12th place finish in 2016 (the second-worst in his 12-year IndyCar career) and a ninth-place showing in 2017.

While he earned three podium finishes in both 2016 and 2017, he hadn’t reached victory lane since 2015.

That all changed just over two months ago when he and his Andretti Autosport team came through to take the checkered flag at Belle Isle.

Hunter-Reay celebrates after his win at Belle Isle in June.

Now, in addition to that win, Hunter-Reay has four podium finishes, his most since six each in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

And now, with four races left on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule – starting with this Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway – Hunter-Reay is enjoying the fruits of his success.

And he hopes there’s even more success to come in those four races, including – with the fortuitous opportunity to earn double points in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway – the potential to win his second championship.

The 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner heads to Pocono ranked fifth in the points standings, 95 points behind series leader Scott Dixon.

“I think overall we’ve been pretty strong, competitive everywhere we’ve gone,” Hunter-Reay said on Tuesday’s IndyCar media teleconference. “We’re back up at the front regularly fighting for podiums, and that’s important.

“No doubt, the past couple races have been missed opportunities (after finishing runner-up at Road America, he’s scored finishes of 19th at Iowa, 16th at Toronto seventh two weeks ago at Mid-Ohio).

“More often than not we show up at a racetrack and we’re contending. It’s been a strong season in many ways. There’s been some missed opportunities in there, no doubt. Hopefully we can close out the season.”

But Hunter-Reay also admits he’ll need some help.

Being 95 points down to Scott, what needs to happen now is we need to go on a run and he needs to start having some bad luck, some difficult races, some circumstances going against him, things like that, which it can do,” Hunter-Reay said. “You just have to keep your head down.

“In this series, it’s the same way in a race, you could be starting mid pack, back of the pack. If you go into it with the right mindset, keep your head down, be tenacious, persistent, you can win races, any of them, and you can win championships.

“Just have to keep focused and make the most of it. Number one thing we have to do is go on the offensive and make a run for it.”

Even with Dixon’s sizable lead, Hunter-Reay isn’t giving up his pursuit of the championship. In a sense, his battle this season is similar to what occurred in 2012. There were those who counted him out, and yet when the dust had settled, he emerged with the title.

“I learned a lot in my racing career, especially through the 2012 season, fighting for the championship with Helio (Castroneves) and Will Power,” Hunter-Reay said. “Once you thought somebody really had an upper hand, thought they were running away with it, everything turned around. There’s still a lot of racing to go (this season).

“Absolutely, we’re going for it, no doubt. We have to focus on every session, make the most of it, race wins. That’s what’s going to get you there.

“Going to Fontana (the 2012 season finale), nobody really had us at a shot of winning it. I forget what the points deficit was. At the end of the night we ended up winning by three points. It’s not over till the last lap, especially with double points on the line, could be a huge swing race.”

This weekend’s venue, Pocono Raceway, has been good to Hunter-Reay the last three years, winning in 2015, finishing third in 2016 and eighth in last year’s race.

“I think we have a great chance (for success at Pocono),” Hunter-Reay said. “I mean, the Pocono race is different than Indy. It is its own beast. It’s very particular in that in turn three with banking, it’s a true handling corner. Feels almost like a Milwaukee type of corner, but going twice the speed.

“You have to set your car up for that. You have to set your car up for turn one, which is a massively banked, tight radius corner. It comes more down to a handling aspect to balance, trying to get the setup right.

“I think we’re going to see a different type of race. I don’t think it’s just going to come down to top end speed, although that will help at Pocono. I think it’s going to be more of a handling race.”

However, with limited practice at Pocono – just two sessions on Saturday – his team will have to scramble to get things right as soon as they unload off the hauler.

“Yeah, it’s a major time crunch,” Hunter-Reay said. “(It’ll be) really hard to get all that done in a short amount of time. It’s really the compromise between turns three and one. That are polar opposites. One corner feels like it’s got no banking, no support to it, the other one is massive banking and a tight radius. It’s very difficult to get those two corners right and get the compromise right with the car when you’re along.

“Once you get into traffic, things change a lot. There will be a qualifying setup, a race setup. We have to do all this with two hours total track time. It will be very difficult, no doubt.”

Hunter-Reay points to the new-style IndyCar this year for his and his team’s uptick in performance in 2018 over the last two years.

“I think as a team we kind of struggled during the aero kit years,” he said. “Now that we’re back on a universal aero kit like we were when we had some success in 2012, ’13 and ’14.

“You show up on a race weekend, you know you have a chance. You’re going in there and the team is going to be able to give you the car that you potentially need to win.

“That makes all the difference really for a driver, just knowing week in and week out that you’ve got a shot at winning and making that run for the championship. I think that’s what we showed this year. It does a lot for your confidence and it really keeps you motivated, no doubt.”

While most race car drivers deny they worry about the standings or points race, Hunter-Reay refreshingly said he’s well aware of where he’s at in the IndyCar rankings – and will be looking forward to the end of Sunday’s race to see where he’ll be heading into the final three races.

“You can’t help but notice where you are (in the standings),” he said. “You really have to be focused on yourself and just winning. You can’t worry about who is where at what time in the weekend. You got to absolutely focus on putting yourself up front.

“After the race, first thing I ask is, ‘where are the guys that we’re fighting in the championship, where did they finish?’ It’s just a curiosity standpoint. You just have to stay focused on yourself.”

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