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Tracy hails Newgarden’s integration, title push with Team Penske

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Like in his driving career, Paul Tracy isn’t afraid to give the verbal “chrome horn” during his NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series commentary if it’s needed. Watkins Glen, after all, was the site of Tracy’s famous one-liner last year that if Marco Andretti didn’t have a ride at Andretti Autosport, “his only other option was Uber.”

But he’s not afraid to bestow praise when it’s deserved, either.

Tracy’s tenure with Team Penske in the 1990s was a case of being a promising, talented young driver making his way against the establishment – in his case Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi as teammates – and not being afraid to rough it up if needed.

1 Mar 1996: Paul Tracy of Canada waits to go out on the track in his Penske PC25 Mercedes-Benz IC108C during practice for the IndyCar Miami Grand Prix at the Metro-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex in Homestead, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondea

Enter Josef Newgarden, who with his pass for the win last Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park on teammate Simon Pagenaud, may well enter Penske lore as a series champion following his most decisive pass for the lead yet in IndyCar, against an established teammate.

The Gateway pass, occurring at more than 180 mph into Turn 1 of an oval, stands out even more than his pass on Will Power for the lead at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which Tracy’s fellow NBCSN analyst Townsend Bell called “legendary” on that broadcast.

“For sure it was a risky pass that Newgarden took. But the door was open, and it was barely enough to get through, and Newgarden said, ‘Okay, the door is cracked open just enough for me to get through, I’ll kick it open the rest of the way,’ and I don’t think Pagenaud liked that very well,” Tracy told reporters on a conference call previewing this weekend’s NBCSN motorsports tripleheader from Monza (7 a.m. ET), Watkins Glen (1 p.m. ET) and Darlington (6 p.m. ET).

“He felt he had the move covered. He was frustrated after the race, and frankly he kind of gave the race away. He could have closed the door down a little bit more, but he left it just enough open for Newgarden to come through.”

Tracy said Newgarden, now in his sixth season in the championship, has fulfilled the potential evident in his early years – and he knew he had his eye on him from as early as his rookie season, when a passing attempt for the lead on Dario Franchitti went awry at Long Beach in 2012.

“He’s not new to the series. He’s been around for four or five years now, and when he first came in to the series with Sarah Fisher, I knew right away just watching him on track that he was a tremendous talent,” Tracy said.

“He had a lot of talent, a lot of speed. He was brave, and I had said a couple years ago when he was driving for Fisher and the team was folding — about to go on the brink of folding up (eventually merged with Ed Carpenter Racing for one season to form CFH Racing, then reverted back to ECR in 2016 -Ed.), I said, you know, publicly in an interview that somebody like Penske or Ganassi needs to give this kid a chance because he’s the real deal, and it didn’t happen at that point, and he got picked up by Ed Carpenter, and he obviously had a great couple years with him, and then really started to kind of come into his own in terms of the speed and got some wins last year.”

Considering the number of drivers that have passed through Team Penske’s halls, what followed next from Tracy was really high praise, following a meeting he, Bell and Kevin Lee had with Roger Penske pre-race last week at Gateway.

“I said to Roger, I said, ‘This kid is like — he’s the whole deal. He’s American, he’s good-looking, he’s fast, he’s brave as hell, he gets all the sponsors in, he goes to all the sponsor events and loves doing it.’

“He moved down to the shop. He’s in the shop every day with the guys. He’s with his engineers at dinner. He’s everything that you would want as a driver, and Roger completely agreed with me.

“He goes, ‘I haven’t had a guy in a long time that has integrated himself into our team as quickly as Josef has done in six months.’”

High praise indeed. Pagenaud backtracked earlier Thursday at a media luncheon when he sought to downplay any tension. Tracy, who spoke to Newgarden earlier this week, said he’s past it and Pagenaud needs to do the same if he is to retain his championship crown – or risk losing it to his new teammate, the points leader, in his first year at Team Penske.

“I think having looked at it in hindsight and having spoken to Newgarden this week, I had a conversation with him, and you know, they had a little bit of a — not an argument but a disagreement after the race, and he was reminded of the fact that he pulled the same kind of move on Power at Mid-Ohio the year before and hit him wheel-to-wheel and pushed him off the track for the win in the closing laps of Mid-Ohio. So he kind of had selective memory of some moves he made,” Tracy said.

“So I think having thought about it now for a week, he’s probably over it, and he knows he needs to win the next two races if he’s going to win the championship, and you’ve got to move on.”

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).