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‘This is my job’: Gabby Chaves making most of difficult situation

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TORONTO – Gabby Chaves spent the weekend at the Honda Indy Toronto watching someone else do the only job he’s ever wanted — and that he had until a few days ago.

As Conor Daly turned laps in the No. 88 Dallara-Chevrolet, Chaves watched intently with a headset and radioed feedback about its handling. He participated in team debriefs after practice. He chatted and smiled amiably with team members fine-tuning the car in the paddock.

Chaves did everything but climb behind the wheel of the car he drove for the first 11 races of the season – until the difficult conversation Monday in which Harding Racing team president Brian Barnhart informed him the team would be evaluating its performance with other drivers.

Five days later, the move still stung.

“Of course, man,” Chaves told NBCSports.com with a smile Saturday after returning from the team’s pit stand. “Of course. And while I understand it, it doesn’t make it any easier to accept, but if I want to grow and want my team to succeed and move forward, I’ve got to play and support the decisions they make.

“If it helps us move forward, we’ve got to do it. … It’s never easy to be on the sidelines and be watching, but this is my job is to be here, so that’s what I’m doing.”

Though it’s Daly in the car this weekend, it’s still Chaves’ face on the side of the team’s transporter, indicative of the fact that he has a contract through the 2019 season that should return him to the car.

The tentative plan is to use various drivers over the final six races of the season to build a framework for expanding to a second car next year (with Chaves returning to his full-time ride).

“It’s not easy,” Barnhart said. “On the other hand, if you walked in and told your driver, ‘Hey, I’m going to sit you this weekend because we’re going to go a different direction and get different feedback,’ if the guy goes, “Oh, OK, that’s fine,” you don’t want that guy anyway.

“He was pissed, and that’s exactly the way you want him to be. He’s fighting every second that car is on the track, he wants to be in it, and that’s the way it should be. After the discussion that it was going to happen, I can’t do anything but compliment Gabby for his professionalism, his class, his dignity in the whole thing.”

Just the scene near the team’s transporter after practice seemed inherently awkward.

Daly, wearing his firesuit, rolled up on a scooter, and the fourth-place finisher in last year’s “Amazing Race” quickly drew a throng of autograph-seekers. Meanwhile, Chaves, who was clad in a team polo, remained unnoticed while sitting at a table off to the side.

There was no trace of bitterness, though, as Chaves, 25, explained that a longtime bond with Daly made the situation easier.

“We’ve been racing together since we were 12 years old together, so we’ve known each other for a long time,” Chaves said. “So that makes it easier to work, of course.

“He’s just a driver just looking for the opportunities, right? I’ve been there before. There is no awkwardness between Conor and myself. We’ve been friends for a long time. We know what it’s like to be out of a ride, in a ride, out of a ride. The best we can do is actually support each other here.”

Daly, who was back in a car for only the second race this season and the first since a 21st in the Indianapolis 500, can appreciate the feeling of being in limbo. He has been sidelined most of 2018 after consecutive full-time seasons in IndyCar and has nothing lined up beyond Toronto.

“This is not an easy game we are playing, and obviously, I appreciate how Gabby’s been through this whole process,” Daly, 26, said. “He’s been awesome. It is what it is. It always sucks to have to be in that situation. I’ve been in that situation before. But yeah, we’ll both keep moving forward.

“What can you do about it? He’s been on the radio every single time. We’ve both been learning together. He’s been communicating while on the pit stand, which is great. It’s a team effort. If he sees this team benefit from this, then it will help him in the long run for sure also.”

There were immediate benefits in qualifying Saturday when Daly took advantage of a session briefly interrupted by rain to qualify 11th, the team’s best starting position since Chaves started eighth in the season opener at St. Petersburg.

Harding, the only one-car team running the full 2018 schedule in the Verizon IndyCar Series, faces an uphill battle of trying to be competitive against multicar teams with more data and funding to optimize their parts and setups. Barnhart said the biggest technology gap is in shock development, estimating bigger teams can spend $500,000 to $1 million annually (Harding doesn’t have a shock program).

At Iowa Speedway, Chaves was instructed by the team to park the car after 99 of 300 laps. Ranked 18th in the points standings with no hope of improving, Barnhart said the team has been focused on 2019 since Chaves finished 14th at Indy, one of three tracks the team ran with him in 2017.

“The transition into a full-season car has been an enormous task for this team because of the different equipment necessary to go road and street and short oval racing,” Barnhart said. “We were ill prepared for the size of that task for the diversity of tracks and to do a full season of racing. We had some stuff to do superspeedway racing, and that’s it. We still don’t have the right components to do short ovals, road courses and street circuits.

“There have been too many times this year we feel we’re taking a knife to a gun fight.”

Barnhart said the feedback at Toronto from Daly, whose style is different than Chaves, “validated” the handling woes and struggles that the team has faced this season.

Chaves also “made some good suggestion contributed as well” to improving the car Saturday, Barnhart said.

“It’s been a good weekend,” Barnhart said. “That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a tough weekend. But it was the right decision, and now we just need to take that information and move forward.”

The next step is a Tuesday test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in which the team is expecting to use both Daly and Chaves to simulate what a two-car setup could resemble next year.

Then after an off week, the team will re-evaluate its driver lineup for Mid-Ohio, Pocono, Gateway, Portland and Sonoma. It likely won’t be Chaves in the car, but the team still expects him to be there.

“All I said to him was I know this is going to be tough and can’t be easy to watch someone else drive your car, but we’d really like for you to be there and participate,” Barnhart said. “But if it’s too difficult emotionally and you can’t do it, I’d understand. He kind of hesitated on it, and he said, ‘I’ll be there.’ It’s just a reflection of what kind of guy he is. It’s the right thing to do, and he did it.”

Chaves plans to attend the final five races just as he did in Toronto.

“Yeah, of course,” he said. “Of course. That’s my job, man.”

Steinbrenner brings winning tradition to IndyCar Victory Lane

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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AUSTIN, Texas – Opening Day for the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball is Thursday against the hapless Baltimore Orioles. But the Steinbrenner family can already celebrate a big-time, major league victory in 2019.

George Michael Steinbrenner, IV is the 22-year-old son of Yankees co-owner and co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner. He is the grandson of the legendary Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose fiery tenure at the helm of the Yankees restored the team to the prestige and pride it continues to enjoy as the most successful professional sports franchise in the world.

Steinbrenner, IV, is co-owner of Harding Steinbrenner Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series and the youngest team owner in IndyCar history.

When his grandfather was ruling the Yankees, excellence wasn’t expected; it was demanded. Those are traits that define the Steinbrenner family.

On Sunday at Circuit of the Americas, young Steinbrenner became an IndyCar winner in just his third race in the series in the INDYCAR Classic. It was also historic as his driver, Colton Herta, became the youngest driver in history to win an IndyCar race at race at 18 years, 11 months and 25 days. Graham Rahal was 19 years 3 months and 2 days when he won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008.

“Break up the Yankees” was a popular battle cry around baseball in the glory days of the boys in pinstripes, from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson to Derek Jeter and A-Rod.

What makes the latest Steinbrenner winner so stunning, is how quickly it happened.

“We didn’t think this was possible so soon,” Steinbrenner told NBC Sports.com from the team’s pit stand seconds after the checkered flag waved for Herta’s victory. “What a drive by Colton and what a job by the crew. They did everything they could to keep us ahead of the 2 car (Josef Newgarden) all day. Wow, I can’t believe it.”

Steinbrenner has the Yankees in his blood and DNA, but his passion has always been IndyCar racing. He was just 16 when he met then 12-year-old Herta at a Skip Barber race at Lime Rock, Connecticut. The two became friends and joined together to begin their climb to IndyCar.

“I interned at Bryan Herta Rallysport for the 2016 season, learning the top to bottom of how a race team operates during the week and during the weekend,” Steinbrenner recalled. “When Colton and I decided that we’d start this crazy journey together in Indy Lights, being able to partner with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights was huge. They’re a buttoned-down organization, do everything right. To be able to learn from the folks there was a huge jump-start, the perfect jump-start I could have hoped for, for INDYCAR ownership.”

For two years, they joined forces with team owner Michael Andretti in Indy Lights. Andretti helped broker a deal for Steinbrenner and Herta to step up to IndyCar by joining a team owned by Indianapolis paving company owner Mike Harding.

Harding Steinbrenner Racing was announced last summer with tremendous fanfare at Yankee Stadium before a New York Yankees game.

Andretti is still part of the operation as Andretti Technologies supplies engineering and crew support to Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

“None of this would have been possible without Michael Andretti,” Herta said. “I’d like to say thank you to Michael and his team. He elevated us to the top really quick and without them we wouldn’t be here.”

When Steinbrenner announced his goal of taking Herta to the IndyCar, it was a long-term commitment. Herta’s first victory at an 18-year-old could be the start of something great, beginning another winning tradition for the Steinbrenners.

“We’ve had a pretty good start here,” Steinbrenner said. “This is huge, to get this win off our belts. We showed the IndyCar world what we could do.”

Herta qualified fourth and raced his way to third in a race that Will Power dominated. The Team Penske driver led the first 45 laps from the pole while he was pursued by Alexander Rossi.

The two front-runners planned on being the last two drivers in the 24-car field to make their final pit stop.

That plan was foiled, however, when James Hinchcliffe’s Honda ran into the back of Felix Rosenqvist’s Honda, sending it into the barrier in Turn 20. That was the only caution in the 60-lap race. Power and Rossi would go from the top two to 14thand 15thafter making their pit stops.

Power’s race ended on pit lane when a broken half-shaft kept his car from engaging in gear and he went from first to worst in the 24-car field.

That put Herta in the lead under caution. Right behind him was the intimidating sight of the No. 2 Chevrolet driven by Team Penske’s 28-year-old Josef Newgarden, the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion and the winner of the 2019 season-opener at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“We knew we got on the right side of the pit strategy and had the pace to stay ahead of two extremely fast guys behind us,” Steinbrenner said. “It was a matter of Colton staying out in front and nursing it home.”

When the green flag waved to restart the race with 10 laps left, the 18-year-old was calm and cool as he was able to get a great restart and pull away from Newgarden.

Back in the pit area, Steinbrenner stood on the timing stand in the pits alongside co-owner Mike Harding and team president and race strategist Brian Barnhart. Because COTA is a 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course, it takes a while to complete a lap. Herta had the fastest lap in the race on Lap 54 and it was 108.9853 seconds.

The long course added to the tension as the 60-lap race neared its conclusion.

Steinbrenner, who bears a resemblance to 1980s actor Fisher Stevens, remained cool on the timing stand.

When Herta’s Honda came out of Turn 20 on the final lap to the checkered flag, Steinbrenner could finally celebrate, pumping his fist in the air.

“I was very concerned,” Steinbrenner admitted. “Most of the guys in the paddock, you are concerned with in a situation like that, especially a former champion. It was nerve-racking.

“Wow. It’s a dream come true.”

Steinbrenner got his first win in IndyCar before the New York Yankees.

“Not too far apart, but a couple of days in front,” Steinbrenner laughed.

For a Steinbrenner, there are always more goals to achieve. Sunday’s first victory is like a “regular season” win to the Yankees. That team’s goal is to win the World Series.

Steinbrenner, IV’s goal is to win the biggest race in the world – the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26.

“I think there’s a pretty big race in May,” Steinbrenner said. “I think for us, that’s the next big goal.

“I grew up with two passions: baseball and racing. I thought my family had one pretty well covered. We’ll go and chase another one.”

When a Steinbrenner sets a goal, don’t bet against it.