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Marco Andretti: Weekend fall off hiding improvements this year

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Marco Andretti’s 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season was so miserable and forgettable, and it meant 2017 was always going to be better.

The problem for him is that even though 2017 has gone better for him, it’s still not been the quantum leap hoped for or expected – similar to his offseason turnaround from 2012 to 2013, his best career season in 12 years in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

As Andretti heads to his home race next weekend, the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway (Sunday, August 20, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the driver of the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda for Andretti Autosport remains in search of both his first win since Iowa 2011 – more than 100 races ago – and his first podium since Fontana in 2015, when he came third.

Consistent flashes have been there all year. Andretti has been a regular pace setter in practice on road and street courses, leading several sessions while working with engineer Nathan O’Rourke and his new strategist, Bryan Herta as part of Andretti Autosport’s improved performance this year under new technical director Eric Bretzman. He sits 13th in points – all four Andretti cars are within seventh and 13th this year – with a best finish of fourth at Toronto.

Andretti’s qualified better – he’s qualified higher at every race this year than he did last year with the exception of St. Petersburg and Iowa – and has a season-best start of eighth on two occasions, at the Indianapolis 500 and Road America.

Still it feels like there’s been much more because in that pursuit for ultimate performance after strong practice pace, setup directions have gone the wrong way ever so slightly that leave Andretti on the outside looking in.

“For me, I really just focus on the 27 side. I haven’t taken much from my teammates this year,” Andretti told NBC Sports.

“There’s some races I know I should have, like Iowa. Obviously Ryan (Hunter-Reay) did a great job there. I’ve tried to pave my own way working with Nathan and Bryan, and make changes for what I like in the car.

“Last year we were guilty of really jumping around setups. For a driver it’s hard to pinpoint and work on yourself when it’s different every session. But for us, our roll off cars have been a lot better this year. So we can make smaller changes.”

Mid-Ohio is a perfect example though of when those smaller changes go the wrong way. Andretti was third in first practice, seventh in second practice, and then fell to 14th in qualifying, before making up spots in the race early and falling into a fuel save situation in the race.

“Mid-Ohio, unfortunately, was one we slid backwards,” he explained. “In the race we got the pace back again but we short filled on the last stop; otherwise we would have been seventh or eighth, and instead got 12th.

“If you miss out in Q1, that’s exactly it – you’re boxed in. If I would have backed it up in practice, I would have been third (in my group) with that pace.

“But it’s IndyCar racing, I prefer it like that. In this sport, it takes perfection to beat the best. I think we need to make the right decisions. I felt we got too conservative. We got the balance back for the race. It’s tough to make up ground. We needed better qualifying.”

The quartet of Andretti Hondas should be good at Pocono, a track where Hunter-Reay should have won last year before a quick mechanical cut out and where he did win in 2015. Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi, of course, have won the last two Indianapolis 500s. And Andretti himself has been close to success at Pocono, most notably in 2013, but struggled last year with 13th in qualifying and 12th in the race.

“Pocono is just about finding the balance between (Turns) 1 and 3,” he said. “What helps in (Turn) 1 doesn’t help the other.

“How we achieve it, I’m not sure with the limited practice. I’m sure we will be good. The Honda package should be good. I have been strong there in the past, but last year was an anomaly.”

Despite Hunter-Reay raving about the improved Gateway Motorsports Park surface, Andretti wonders how what he learned from his first test there in May will translate to that short oval race.

“I think that’s one we’ll have to salvage because we’re at a big deficit (aero-wise),” he said. “With the improved track grip, that will mean more we trim out, and more disadvantage we’re at. We had a decent test balance wise in May, so hopefully it’s still relevant.”

As Andretti heads into the final four races of 2017 – his last four before he gets married to fiancee Marta Krupa in late September – he’s already optimistic IndyCar’s latest reset with the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit will better suit his driving style.

At the same point, he is putting aside any of the critiques or distractions from doubters, saying he has to stay focused. What people outside the paddock on a full-time basis fail to realize is that Andretti actually has such an innate desire to succeed and perform, despite it sometimes looking appearance-wise the opposite situation. He admitted as such in an interview last year.

“What I like about it is I hope we get some predictability back,” he said. “It’s so in and out of grip right now. That’s where I suffer. I need a car to tell me what it can do. So that’ll be friendly downforce, with the underbody. That’s what I’m hoping for. We’ll try to adapt.”

As for any critiques? “I know what I have going on. I know what I’m doing, that’s all that matters. So none of that phases me anymore. Even the criticism. I’m extremely hard on myself. Honestly I don’t even read it much anymore. I just have to focus on making myself better.”

Female racer makes history with record finishes in dirt national midget events

Photo courtesy Toyota Racing
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Holly Shelton is riding high after setting a milestone for a female driver in a national midget series feature event on dirt this past weekend.

The Sacramento, California-area resident recorded the highest finish ever for a female dirt national midget series driver with a runner-up finish last Friday at the POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget League double-header weekend at Valley Speedway in Grain Valley, Missouri.

Shelton broke her own national record for top finish by a woman in a national dirt event – she finished third in a USAC race at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, last year.

One night after setting her new national record, Shelton and her Keith Kunz Motorsports Toyota roared back Saturday to finish third (started on the outside pole) in the second half of the weekend double-header, making her the first female dirt driver ever on the national midget circuit to earn back-to-back podium finishes.

“It’s cool making history as a female, but my number one thing is I just want to win,” said Shelton, who will be graduating from Cal-State Sacramento with a B.A. in Criminal Justice this fall. “Truthfully, on the track I don’t even remember that I’m a girl. I’m just racing all the guys with the same goal they have – to win.”

Only one other woman has finished second in either a USAC or POWRi midget feature – Sarah McCune at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway in 1999 – but that was on pavement, not dirt.

The record-setting weekend was great consolation for Shelton, who missed three races earlier this season due to surgery and then sat out three other races last month after suffering a race-related concussion.

“It felt good,” she said of her back-to-back podium finishes. “It builds up my confidence. The car is fast and we keep getting better and we want to build on it.”

Shelton was one of four women that competed in midget competition this weekend. The others were 19-year-old Maria Cofer and 16-year-olds Holley Hollan and Presley Truedson.

“It’s awesome seeing all the little girls come up to me excited to see me at the track,” Shelton said. “Hopefully, it encourages them to pursue their dreams as well and, as the years go on, more girls will get into it.”

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