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.”

Final 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona results, stats

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona overall results were all streaks: two consecutive victories in the endurance classic for Meyer Shank Racing and three in a row for Acura.

And Helio Castroneves became the second driver to win three consecutive Rolex 24s and the first to win in three straight years (Peter Gregg won in 1973, ’75 and ’76; the race wasn’t held in ’74 because of a global oil crisis).

Starting from the pole position, Tom Blomqvist took the checkered flag in the No. 60 ARX-06 that led a race-high 365 of 783 laps with co-drivers Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Colin Braun.

RESULTS: Click here for the finishing order in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona l By class

Meyer Shank Racing now has two Rolex 24 victories and the 2022 championship since entering the premier prototype category of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2021.

“I think what’s so special about this team is we are a small team compared to some of our opponents, but the atmosphere, the way we work, enables people to get the best out of themselves, and I think that’s why we’re such high achievers,” Blomqvist said. “I think there’s no egos. It’s a very open book, and that just enables each and every one of us to reach our potential. I think that’s why we’ve achieved so much success in really a short time at this level of competition.”

It’s the 16th IMSA victory for MSR.

The 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona marked the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category that brought hybrid engine technology to IMSA’s top level.

In other categories:

LMP2: James Allen passed Ben Hanley on the final lap and delivered a victory in the No. 55 ORECA by 0.016 seconds. It’s the second IMSA victory for Proton Competition, which last won at Sebring in 2012. It was the first Rolex 24 victory for Allen and co-drivers Gianmaria Bruni, Fred Poordad and Francesco Pizzi.

GTD Pro: Cooper MacNeil won in the last start of his IMSA career as the No. 79 Mercedes-AMG GT3 scored the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for WeatherTech Racing and the team’s fourth career victory.

MacNeil, who co-drove with Maro Engel, Jules Gounon and Daniel Juncadella, earned his 12th career victory and first at the Rolex 24.

“Winning by last IMSA race is tremendous,” MacNeil said.

GTD: The No. 27 Heart of Racing Team delivered the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for Aston Martin, which has been competing in endurance races at Daytona International Speedway since 1964. Drivers Marco Sorensen, Roman De Angelis, Darren Turner and Ian James (also the team principal) earned the victory in the English brand’s 13th attempt.

It’s also the first Rolex 24 at Daytona win for Heart of Racing, which has seven IMSA wins.

LMP3: Anthony Mantella, Wayne Boyd, Nico Varrone and Thomas Merrill drove the No. 17 AWA Duqueine D08 to victory by 12 laps for the team’s first class win in IMSA.


STATS PACKAGE FOR ROLEX 24 HOURS OF DAYTONA:

Fastest laps by driver

Fastest laps by driver after race (over the weekend)

Fastest laps by driver and class after race

Fastest lap sequence

Lap chart

Leader sequence

Race analysis by lap

Stint analysis

Time cards

Pit stop time cards

Best sector times

Race distance and speed average

Flag analysis

Weather report

NEXT: The 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season will resume with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring March 18 with coverage across NBC, USA and Peacock.