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Rossi: ‘I love this championship, and where it’s heading’

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Just over a week ago, it was key to note how big of a role Alexander Rossi played for the benefit of his Andretti Autosport team at Pocono Raceway and after another solid night Saturday at Gateway Motorsports Park, it was interesting to see how happy he was – again – after another good oval race in his impressive sophomore season.

For a driver who once was down on ovals before having ever raced on them, Rossi is now through two seasons of oval racing as he continues to grow and develop even further beyond his initial oval campaign last year.

More to the point, as one of perhaps the most highly coveted drivers within the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock for 2018, Rossi is at ease with where he’s at in life, with the series and with ovals.

Well, mostly, on the oval bit.

“I mean it’s like, I’m glad we’re done for the year,” Rossi laughed Saturday night after the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline, where he finished sixth in the No. 98 ShopAndretti.com/Curb Honda for Andretti-Herta Autosport, second among Hondas.

“I love the speedways. I’ve gotten totally comfortable on those. But the short oval stuff, I’m still white knuckling it sometimes. I think a lot of guys are.

“It’s so intense to drive with the amount of downforce on, and how committed you have to be to succeed. It’s still something I’m not fully OK with yet.”

As for the series itself, it’s fascinating to see that the 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion is now so firmly entrenched in the IndyCar paddock that any F1 talk seems so far off at this point.

In just two years, but particularly this second season, Rossi’s candor and effervescence is showing through in a positive light as he grows more comfortable within the paddock.

And his results have improved along with that – he sits seventh in points, having overtaken teammate Takuma Sato, and only 14 points behind Graham Rahal as he looks to be the second highest-scoring Honda driver this year.

Whereas in 2016 Rossi had only six top-10 finishes, he has nine this year, including four in a row now with a second, sixth, third and sixth since Toronto. He’s also qualified better at every track this year than he has last year, save for Phoenix (14th in 2016, 15th in 2017) with 10 top-10 starts compared to just three last year.

“I’m trying. I’ve learned a lot off-track and on; the Andretti Autosport team has helped me with that so much,” Rossi reflected. “The IndyCar staff and media have really helped me off track, and that’s made a big difference. I owe a big thanks to all those guys, so it’s positive.

“I love this championship. I love where this is heading. I’m really happy to be here.”

Photo: IndyCar

Where Rossi is heading for 2018 remains a big question mark. Like with several other drivers and teams, Rossi could be in a spot where his future won’t be settled until Andretti Autosport determines whether it stays with Honda or switches to Chevrolet. Rossi and Honda are developing a close working relationship and his name has been rumored at a couple other teams.

Speculation about Rossi’s future is just that. For once though, it’s not about if he stays in IndyCar, but where he’ll be on the grid.

Saturday night’s race at Gateway was a prime example of how smart Rossi can race given the aero kit deficiencies between the more draggy Honda package versus the more slippery Chevrolet package on the short ovals.

Finishing sixth, Rossi said, was almost like a win considering there were three Penskes and Scott Dixon, who ended second, ahead of him.

Seeing Rossi in the top-six along with fellow 26-year-old or younger Americans Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden, who’ve all returned home to America after fellow stints abroad, was also fun to witness from a future outlook perspective.

“It was one of those nights where you’ll be happy with a P6,” Rossi said. “Because Scott did a typical Scott right?

“We had his pace, but it was one of those things, whenever someone cycled out, we fell back slightly. But to come out sixth with the deficiencies was just what we were looking for.”

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).