IndyCar 2019 preview: Four veterans with something to prove

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Editor’s Note: Over the next two days, MotorsportsTalk will preview all full-time entries competing in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series. Our second preview features four series veterans looking for a breakout season this year. 

Read our first feature on champion drivers by clicking here.

The 2019 season begins on March 10 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Additional coverage can be found on NBC Sports Gold.

Graham Rahal – #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

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When your father and team owner is a former IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner, you have a lot to live up to, and although Graham Rahal has yet to win either, he still has plenty of time to create a legacy of his own, having just turned 30 in January. Rahal looks to improve this season, having finished a disappointing 2018 winless for the first time since 2014. The RLL team enters the year with a new engineer in Allen McDonald, who was hired in October, and a new vice president in Piers Phillips. The team hopes that the addition of both industry veterans will ensure improvement for the team as a whole in 2019, so don’t be surprised to see Rahal return to victory lane this year.

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Marco Andretti – #98 Andretti Herta Autosport Honda

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Like Rahal, Marco Andretti has faced high expectations to perform well due to his last name. However, success has eluded Marco recently, having not won a race since Iowa in 2011. Andretti hopes to end that drought in 2019, with the 31-year-old Nazareth, Penn., native pairing with a new engineer this season. Mark Bryant, who recently won the 2018 Indy Lights championship with Patricio O’Ward, replaces Nathan O’Rourke.

Whether Bryant’s success in 2018 will continue this year remains to be seen, but the move is seen as a step in the right direction. Andretti could be a threat to win on the road and street courses this year, having won his first pole since 2013 in the first race at Belle Isle, where he eventually finished a 2018-best fourth. However, there is no other race Marco could win that would add to the Andretti family legacy more than the Indianapolis 500 (May 26 on NBC). A win at Indy this year couldn’t be more fitting for Marco. 2019 marks the 50-year anniversary of his grandfather Mario’s win at the Brickyard in 1969.

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James Hinchcliffe – #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

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James Hinchcliffe experienced a feast or famine season in 2018. Despite earning his highest points finish since 2013 and winning at Iowa Speedway, he failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. But his outlook for 2019 is increasingly positive. Sponsor Arrow Electronics has remained faithful to Hinchcliffe and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, further reinforcing their commitment by becoming the title sponsor of the team. Hinch will also have a new teammate this year, with Formula One veteran Marcus Ericsson making the move to IndyCar to join him at SPM. Hinchcliffe enters his ninth season in IndyCar with a clean sheet. Expect him to make the best of it, as Hinchcliffe has stated that he is a man on a mission. That mission? To come back to Indianapolis – and win.

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Takuma Sato – #30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

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Takuma Sato looks to make 2019 the third year in a row he’s reached victory lane. The Japanese driver won the 101st Indianapolis 500 for Andretti Autosport in 2017 and won at Portland International Raceway last September. But Sato’s victory in the series’ return to the Pacific Northwest was RLL’s only real highlight last year, and the entire organization hopes to turn things around this season, having made changes over the off-season in hope of becoming more competitive. Sato enters this season with the goal of more consistent finishes, and though the #30 finished mid-pack in preseason testing, don’t be surprised to see the driver known for his “no attack, no chance” philosophy to aggressively make his way to the front of the pack this season.

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The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series begins on March 10 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. E.T on NBCSN.

 

NHRA: Funny Car driver J.R. Todd looks to snap slump, make history at U.S. Nationals

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In addition to being the most gratifying achievement of his NHRA drag racing career, winning the 2018 NHRA Funny Car championship was also the hardest thing J.R. Todd has ever done.

That is, until he tried to defend the title in 2019 – which has now become the hardest thing Todd has done behind the wheel.

After winning a career-best six wins en route to his title last season, Todd has had a rough campaign in the first 17 races of the current season, having earned just one win (Las Vegas) and two runner-up finishes.

In addition, he’s failed to make it out of the first round six times, and was stopped in the quarter-finals eight other times.

And as he prepares for next week’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis – the biggest race of the season – the 37-year-old Todd is mired in a difficult slump. Since losing to Ron Capps in the final round at Richmond, Todd has dropped from second to eighth in the Funny Car standings, unable to get past the second round of the nine subsequent events.

That’s why Todd is hoping for a major turnaround at the U.S. Nationals, the final qualifying race for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

J.R. Todd (Photo: NHRA).

A massive 416 points (the equivalent of more than three wins points-wise) out of first place, Todd needs to start a big comeback if he hopes to do well in the playoffs, and the U.S. Nationals is the perfect place for him to do so. Todd comes into this year’s race having won the last two Funny Car crowns at Indy in 2017 and 2018.

If he can make it three in a row, Todd will make NHRA history. To date, only two drivers – Top Fuel greats “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Tony Schumacher – have won three in a row at Indianapolis. But no Funny Car driver has ever done so, not John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme or anyone else.

“That’s some pretty elite company right there with Big Daddy and Tony Schumacher,” Todd told NBC Sports. “Really you try not to think about things like that and just focus on the mission at hand – and that’s to win the race.

“When you do that, then you can enjoy all the accolades that come with it. I have the two trophies that I can look at every day – and it’s an awesome reminder of what we’ve done. It was a dream of mine as a kid to go there and race in the U.S. Nationals as a professional someday and to have won it is still kind of a surreal feeling.”

Todd, who lives in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana, wants to be the first Funny Car driver to pull off that achievement — and at his home track, to boot.

“It’s the biggest race of the year and the one that everyone wants to win,” Todd said. “To go back there and win there three years in a row would be pretty special.

“For me, it’s the race I grew up going to as a kid. I have a lot of family and friends that go there. I live five minutes from the track, so it means everything to me.”

In a sense, his situation this season is kind of deja vu for Todd. Last season, he won two races earlier in the season (Las Vegas and Houston), then went into a slump much like the one he’s currently in.

But starting with last September’s win at Indianapolis, Todd went on to win four of the final seven races of the season — including three in the playoffs — to motor on to the championship.

What makes Todd’s success at Indy all the more unique is that while he’s a long-time drag racer, he only switched to Funny Car prior to the 2017 season. That means in just two seasons, the former Top Fuel pilot has not only twice won the sport’s biggest race, but also the championship.

The team Todd races for, Kalitta Motorsports, has a history of starting to hit its stride just before the playoffs begin in Funny Car. From 2014 through 2018, the organization has won 13 Funny Car races beginning with the second-to-last regular season race at Brainerd, Minnesota through the six playoff races. That’s 13 of 40 races, roughly 33% of the races that NHRA has won.

In addition to Todd’s two U.S. Nationals wins, Team Kalitta also won the Funny Car event in 2014 with now-retired driver Alexis DeJoria.

I knew coming over to drive the DHL Toyota Camry that we would have some good opportunities to win races,” Todd said. “For whatever reason, it seems like we pick up a lot of momentum at that time of year. We’re hoping we can keep that trend going this year.”

In a sense, the U.S. Nationals – the 18th and final regular season race of the overall 24-race NHRA schedule – are to the NHRA what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR or the Indianapolis 500 is to IndyCar.

“It sets the tone for the next six races,” Todd said of the playoffs. “The U.S. Nationals are a marathon. It’s the one race where everyone brings out their best stuff because it’s so important.  So much of that preparation then carries over into the Countdown.

“If you ask drivers that haven’t won Indy before, I think they’d trade pretty much any win for that one.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski