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IndyCar: New car number, new attitude have Marco Andretti very optimistic about 2018

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To use an old baseball adage, for a number of IndyCar drivers this season, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.

Several drivers have not only switched teams, they’ve also switched car numbers, in a sense giving them a new identity and a new reboot to their careers. Among those: Charlie Kimball, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and also Marco Andretti (new number but still with same team).

After driving the No. 27 for the last three Verizon IndyCar Series seasons, Andretti has switched to the No. 98 for 2018.

While he’s still under the Andretti Autosport corporate umbrella, Marco will be driving for the Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian subsidiary of former IndyCar driver Bryan Herta.

In a sense, it’s a new number, new start for the third-generation IndyCar driver.

“I’d like to think so,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “I definitely need a fresh start. If I keep carrying all this baggage of not having won a race and this and that, it’ll be tough to win a race.

“I have all the confidence in the world in myself and my team that we can do it. We just need to look forward because I really think we have the pace and camaraderie and personnel this year. I don’t see a weak guy on the team. Everybody’s extremely hard-working and on the same page and that’s what it’s going to win a championship. So, yeah, a fresh start would be great.”

This is the fourth time Andretti, who just turned 31 on March 13, has had a different number grace the side of his race car:

* He previously drove the No. 26 from 2006-2012 (Zack Veach is driving that car number this season).

* He drove the No. 25 from 2013-2014. The switch from No. 26 did him good: in 2013, he finished a career-best fifth.

* He drove the No. 27 from 2015-2017 (Alexander Rossi has taken over that number in 2018).

Andretti will be the first to admit he struggled last season, finishing 12th (albeit an improvement from 16th in 2016). That’s why he believes switching numbers and driving primarily for Herta will be a good change for him.

He’s already started out in a good way, finishing ninth in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg over two weeks ago.

“I think that was a race where the qualifying and the race result did not reflect our performance,” Andretti said. “And going forward, I actually prefer that because it’s not like we lucked into ninth. Ninth was like the worst where we should have finished.

“There was a point in that race where I drove from 18th to third and I was having a go at second. I think pace-wise we’re where we need to be and I’m hoping there’s not going to be a weak part all year for us.

“I can’t think of a track right now that I’m not looking forward to going to. That’s a good feeling. I had a lot of fun in that race, I passed like 30 cars. Yeah, you can get bummed out because you finished ninth because you deserved better, but at the same time, I think it bodes well for the rest of the season for the No. 98.”

You can readily tell how optimistic Andretti is simply by listening to him. He’s much more positive sounding than he has been the last couple of years.

Much of that can be tied to the new IndyCar body, which has received rave reviews by both drivers and fans.

“For me in particular, I’d like to think it’s a bigger gain for me than anybody else because of how much I struggled with the last kit,” Andretti said. “It was so light-switchy grip. You either had way too much downforce or it’s gone, so it’s very hard to feel where the limit is.

“I think now the car is on the limit all the time because it’s so light and it’s a lot busier. I think it’s more physical because of how busy it is and how tense you are on the wheel to try and keep the thing beneath you, but I prefer that and I feel that’s the way a race car should be: a beast that’s not easily tamed.”

After 201 career starts, two wins and 20 podium finishes, the new car has Andretti hoping to return to victory lane for the first time since his second and most recent IndyCar win in 2011 (his first came as a 19-year-old series rookie in 2006).

He could not pick a better place to take the checkered flag than next week at Phoenix – or in two weeks in Long Beach. The Phoenix race will have added significance for Marco, as ISM Raceway will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of his grandfather Mario’s final IndyCar victory in 1993.

To honor his grandfather, Marco will be driving a throwback livery – sponsored by Oberto Beef Jerky – that looks very similar to his grandfather’s Newman-Haas Racing Texaco Valvoline ride in that milestone race.

“I’m looking forward to Phoenix, honoring my grandfather’s last win there, so that will be really cool,” Marco Andretti said. “We had a real good test there (in February) and were fast in race and qualifying trim.

“So, I’m really looking forward to getting these cars back on the short ovals with the new aero kit. And of course, Long Beach, the following week, is such an iconic place for IndyCar and the history there. I love going there and the fans and the setting there. I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks.”

Marco is also very bullish on the overall series and even greater success this season. IndyCar has seen a steady climb in TV ratings and at-track attendance in the last several years, coupled with last week’s announcement that NBC and NBCSN will be the exclusive network for over-the-air and cable TV, as well as digital and streaming rights online for IndyCar from 2019 through 2021.

“It’s all positive things,” Marco said. “When you look at what INDYCAR is doing, a lot of other sports are on the decline, but we’re on an upswing, so we should get double the credit.

“It’s a tough thing, what we’re trying to do here, but at the same time, I look at our product and say, ‘How do you not watch this thing?’ We’re a bunch of crazy guys at crazy speeds in open-wheel racing, and the product and the racing and race-ability of these cars is the best and it’s the most competitive. I’ll put us against any sport, even Formula One.”

And as for the No. 98 team and its driver in particular?

“I feel like we’re firing on all cylinders right now and that’s what it’s going to take to win a championship,” the younger Andretti said. “For the last couple of years, I wasn’t even able to say that word – championship.

“Now I really am (able to say it), I believe it, I want to string together a few wins, I want to win the Indy 500 and I think it could be a pretty awesome year.”

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NHRA Denver: John Force one away from 150 career wins; Pritchett, Anderson, Arana Jr. also win

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John Force may be 69 years old, but Sunday he proved he is still a major force to reckon with in NHRA Funny Car competition.

The winningest driver in NHRA history, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion won his 149th national event Sunday, capturing the Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado (suburban Denver).

Force (4.075 seconds at 315.42 mph) defeated 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps (4.067 seconds at 308.71 mph) in the final round to earn his first win in over a year.

Force has now won at least one race in each of the last 31 seasons and qualifies for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“The fire is back in me, I’m fighting,” Force said. “I got tired of hearing me snivel to myself. My wife doesn’t even want to talk to me. … I don’t know why I won this race but I have a lot more fight in my belly.”

Admittedly, before Sunday, he has struggled for much of the last year since his last win.

“I found myself with all the crashes and everything that happened probably at the lowest point in my career,” Force said. “It has been worse than when I crashed in 2007 (in the worst wreck of his career).

“I have been fighting to get back. I never let on to anyone but it showed that I just looked like a mess. I am fighting to get back. I had four crashes (this season) and after my last one I had John Bandimere (owner of Bandimere Speedway) call me and say, ‘We have to talk.’ I said ‘I know you love God and I know where you want to go.’ He told me to listen to him and he set me straight.

“I didn’t know if I would ever get back in position to win a race. Bandimere told me I could and I won’t stand here and preach the Gospel but he said when I get to Denver I will be fixed. He didn’t say I was going to win but that I would be fixed. He told me to go out there and show me who John Force is.”

It was Force’s eighth win (and first there since 2016) and 13th final round appearance at Denver in his career, making him the winningest Funny Car driver ever at Bandimere Speedway.

Force defeated daughter and No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force in the semifinals to set up the deciding run vs. Capps. Prior to defeating Courtney, Force beat Matt Hagan and Cruz Pedregon in the first two rounds of eliminations earlier in the day.

“I had to beat a lot of great racers today, Hagan, Cruz, Capps, I love them all,” Force said.

Here are more tidbits about Force’s day, which leaves him one win away from 150 career wins:

  • Force now has 1,303 round wins in his career. He has beaten 137 different drivers en route to that mark.
  • 376 of those round wins came against 15 world champions including two-time champ Matt Hagan, against whom he improved his record to 21-17 with today’s first round victory.
  • Force claimed 152 round wins at the expense of the Pedregon brothers: Cruz, Tony and Frank.
  • He has beaten fathers and sons (Jim and Mike Dunn, Paul and Mike Smith, Tim and Dan Wilkerson) and brothers (Cruz, Tony and Frank Pedregon along with Ron and Jon Capps)
  • He has beaten Cruz Pedregon 70 times, more often than any other driver
  • He earned 21 round wins against daughters Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force and 22 against Robert Hight, his protégé and the father of granddaughter Autumn Hight.
  • He has won rounds on 27 different tracks in 18 states and Canada
  • He has won 128 rounds in three different events at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the most at any single track
  • He has won 76 rounds in the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, the most in any single event
NHRA Denver winners, from left: Hector Arana Jr., Greg Anderson, John Force, Leah Pritchett. Photo courtesy NHRA.

Other winners in the first of the NHRA’s annual three-race “Western Swing” (Denver; Sonoma, California; and Seattle) included Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel, Greg Anderson won his first race of the season in Pro Stock and Hector Arana Jr. earned his first Pro Stock Motorcycle win since 2015.

The race was the 14th of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.831 seconds at 316.45 mph) earned her second win of 2018 and seventh of her career. She was No. 1 qualifier for the event (also for the second race in a row and 10th No. 1 of her career) and defeated Doug Kalitta (3.852 seconds at 319.82 mph) for the win.

Prior to facing Kalitta, Pritchett defeated Terry Totten, Scott Palmer and Clay Millican in the first three rounds.

“Our crew has really impressed, attitude of gratitude, as high as the altitude here,” Pritchett said. “They chipped away at it and didn’t let themselves get down earlier this year when we were in a slump and they didn’t let me get myself down in a slump either. I always have my confidence in them and they have their confidence in me and this weekend we pulled it all together.”

In Pro Stock, Anderson earned his first win of the season, his third at Bandimere and 91st triumph of his career.

Anderson (6.943 seconds at 196.53 mph) defeated Summit Racing Equipment teammate Jason Line (6.947 seconds at 196.19 mph). Also, the victory put Anderson back atop the Pro Stock points standings.

“We have had a heck of a battle this year, we have had great running cars but we have made mistakes on Sunday and haven’t been able to close the deal,” Anderson said. “The class is so tough right now, it is so hard to win. The bottom line is we haven’t put forth our best effort on Sunday, we haven’t lost giving it our best shot and today we did.”

Anderson defeated Joey Grose, Vincent Nobile, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. to advance to the finals showdown with Line.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Arana Jr. earned his first win since St. Louis in 2015 and his 12th career NHRA triumph.

In his first final round of the season, Arana (7.170 seconds at 185.89 mph), who earlier this year became the first rider to crack the 200 mph barrier, won easily when 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie fouled at the starting line.

“We have had a fast bike all the time, just been working on consistency and then when the bike was good I was making little errors,” Arana Jr. said. “Dedication, hard work, and practicing to bring it all together. Finally got over some hurdles over here and now we should be back on track.”

The Western Swing continues July 27-29 with the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Clay Millican; 4. Blake Alexander; 5. Scott Palmer; 6. Steve Torrence; 7. Jim Maroney; 8. Richie Crampton; 9. Tony Schumacher; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Greg Carrillo; 12. Terry Totten; 13. Bill Litton; 14. Brittany Force; 15. Mike Salinas; 16. Terry McMillen.

FUNNY CAR: 1. John Force; 2. Ron Capps; 3. Robert Hight; 4. Courtney Force; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Tim Wilkerson; 8. Jack Beckman; 9. J.R. Todd; 10. Jonnie Lindberg; 11. Matt Hagan; 12. Jeff Diehl; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Shawn Langdon; 16. Todd Simpson.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jason Line; 3. Chris McGaha; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Alex Laughlin; 8. Tanner Gray; 9. Bo Butner; 10. Drew Skillman; 11. Matt Hartford; 12. Fernando Cuadra; 13. Erica Enders; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Joey Grose; 16. Will Hatcher.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Hector Arana Jr.; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. Andrew Hines; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Scotty Pollacheck; 6. LE Tonglet; 7. Steve Johnson; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Angie Smith; 11. Jim Underdahl; 12. Angelle Sampey; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Joey Gladstone; 15. Cory Reed; 16. Eddie Krawiec.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Leah Pritchett, 3.831 seconds, 316.45 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 3.852 seconds, 319.82 mph.

FUNNY CAR: John Force, Chevy Camaro, 4.075, 315.42 def. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.067, 308.71.

PRO STOCK: Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.943, 196.53 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.947, 196.19.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 7.170, 185.89 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Scott Palmer, 3.894, 317.34 def. Antron Brown, 4.047, 300.13; Blake Alexander, 3.863, 320.81 def. Mike Salinas, 5.827, 118.72; Leah Pritchett, 3.857, 322.81 def. Terry Totten, 4.156, 276.18; Jim Maroney, 4.267, 264.96 def. Brittany Force, 5.524, 129.54; Steve Torrence, 3.899, 325.06 def. Bill Litton, 5.216, 121.99; Clay Millican, 3.824, 327.59 def. Greg Carrillo, 4.088, 309.98; Richie Crampton, 3.870, 317.19 def. Terry McMillen, 6.020, 120.89; Doug Kalitta, 3.849, 320.43 def. Tony Schumacher, 3.852, 321.12; QUARTERFINALS — Alexander, 3.847, 322.58 def. Torrence, 3.903, 321.12; Pritchett, 3.806, 321.96 def. Palmer, 3.890, 317.34; Millican, 3.887, 295.85 def. Crampton, 5.045, 158.99; Kalitta, 3.897, 302.08 def. Maroney, 4.227, 249.53; SEMIFINALS — Kalitta, 3.872, 311.63 def. Alexander, 3.857, 320.20; Pritchett, 3.826, 312.93 def. Millican, 3.826, 320.36; FINAL — Pritchett, 3.831, 316.45 def. Kalitta, 3.852, 319.82.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 4.103, 293.15 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.186, 311.92; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.089, 315.78 def. Jeff Diehl, Camry, Foul – Red Light; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.089, 285.65 def. Terry Haddock, Toyota Solara, 4.834, 193.54; Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.689, 182.21 def. Todd Simpson, Charger, Broke – No Show; John Force, Camaro, 4.158, 285.77 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.279, 265.69; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.094, 308.28 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.998, 167.99; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.101, 312.93 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.133, 311.27; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.057, 315.64 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 5.128, 165.01; QUARTERFINALS — J. Force, 4.139, 313.44 def. Pedregon, 4.137, 252.61; Hight, 4.052, 318.09 def. Johnson Jr., 4.117, 313.58; Capps, 4.082, 309.70 def. Beckman, 4.528, 214.25; C. Force, 4.121, 306.88 def. Wilkerson, 4.268, 272.12; SEMIFINALS — J. Force, 4.048, 318.62 def. C. Force, 4.453, 206.29; Capps, 4.052, 313.88 def. Hight, 4.035, 314.31; FINAL — J. Force, 4.075, 315.42 def. Capps, 4.067, 308.71.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.970, 196.27 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 7.098, 195.68; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.974, 196.79 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.968, 196.99; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.991, 196.04 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.969, 196.93; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.983, 196.42 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.975, 195.96 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 7.178, 190.14; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.975, 196.13 def. Will Hatcher, Dart, 15.790, 58.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.968, 196.67 def. Joey Grose, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.969, 197.02 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 7.017, 195.85; QUARTERFINALS — Coughlin, 6.994, 195.87 def. Gray, 6.996, 196.27; McGaha, 6.975, 196.44 def. Kramer, 6.959, 196.96; Line, 6.983, 197.16 def. Laughlin, 6.994, 195.90; Anderson, 6.985, 197.02 def. Nobile, 6.986, 196.24; SEMIFINALS — Anderson, 6.945, 196.27 def. Coughlin, 6.994, 195.79; Line, 6.958, 196.87 def. McGaha, 6.965, 195.79; FINAL — Anderson, 6.943, 196.53 def. Line, 6.947, 196.19.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 7.290, 182.26 def. Cory Reed, Buell, 7.412, 180.60; Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 7.229, 181.11 def. Angie Smith, Buell, 7.276, 181.86; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 7.265, 182.75 def. Hector Arana, Buell, 7.252, 184.85; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 7.212, 184.55 def. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 7.296, 184.32; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 7.199, 186.25 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 7.364, 180.40; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 7.142, 188.75 def. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 7.349, 181.50; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 7.345, 180.36 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 7.982, 125.40; Matt Smith, 7.194, 186.00 def. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.279, 182.48; QUARTERFINALS — Stoffer, 7.347, 181.20 def. Johnson, 7.427, 180.19; Hines, 7.219, 186.18 def. Pollacheck, Foul – Red Light; Savoie, 7.274, 183.82 def. M. Smith, Broke; Arana Jr, 7.159, 188.46 def. Tonglet, 7.312, 184.37; SEMIFINALS — Savoie, 7.284, 183.19 def. Stoffer, 7.329, 181.25; Arana Jr, 7.163, 188.15 def. Hines, 7.215, 185.31; FINAL — Arana Jr, 7.170, 185.89 def. Savoie, Foul – Red Light.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,132; 2. Clay Millican, 959; 3. Leah Pritchett, 949; 4. Tony Schumacher, 930; 5. Doug Kalitta, 893; 6. Antron Brown, 750; 7. Terry McMillen, 696; 8. Brittany Force, 658; 9. Richie Crampton, 576; 10. Scott Palmer, 544.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,156; 2. Matt Hagan, 946; 3. Ron Capps, 930; 4. Robert Hight, 911; 5. Jack Beckman, 906; 6. J.R. Todd, 832; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 746; 8. John Force, 735; 9. Shawn Langdon, 647; 10. Bob Tasca III, 596.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 1,044; 2. Tanner Gray, 976; 3. Erica Enders, 969; 4. Vincent Nobile, 947; 5. Chris McGaha, 875; 6. Drew Skillman, 842; 7. Jeg Coughlin, 838; 8. Bo Butner, 782; 9. Jason Line, 778; 10. Deric Kramer, 725.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 591; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 564; 3. Hector Arana Jr, 501; 4. LE Tonglet, 493; 5. Jerry Savoie, 481; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 417; 7. Matt Smith, 411; 8. Angie Smith, 304; 9. (tie) Hector Arana, 289; Angelle Sampey, 289.

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