The Indy 500 can really make or break the season now for Andretti Autosport, why they’re focusing on the race, not qualifying right now

INDIANAPOLIS — Last year, the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 was Andretti Autosport’s race to lose. They dominated the speed charts all month and had five bullets in their chamber up front. Unfortunately, they didn’t place a single driver in the top five when it was all said and done for the session that mattered the most – race day.

So, while they’ve had a rough start to the season and not very far up the speed charts this week, it got many wondering what was going on with Andretti?

Part of this is the changes made to the racing package between last August and this May. Another part is teams have worked hard too so that they can catch up. The biggest part is the Andretti camp is focusing more on race day right now and saw that speed throughout the month last year didn’t translate into a victory.

They don’t feel like they have qualifying speed as we head into qualifying weekend, so why focus there? They had it last year but it didn’t amount to anything when it counted the most. That’s allowed them to finely tune their “race” cars for next Sunday’s race.

“I think everybody works hard every year to catch up,” said James Hinchcliffe. “Obviously this team has had a great track record here of showing up and being quick, but it’s always going to ebb and flow a little bit. With the aero pieces that we were given this year, I think it changed some things for us. Just kind of finding that sweet spot is something that we’re still working on. It’s not doom and gloom just yet, but certainly it looks like everyone’s made a big step up.”

His teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay agreed saying that they’re still just looking for some speed but focusing more on race running stuff. 

Marco Andretti was the best example. He dominated the speed charts last year. He won the pole. Then, he went out and didn’t lead a single lap of the race. He’s not going to allow that to happen again. 

“No I just feel like the car is not as fast as last year and that’s just speed,” he said on Thursday morning. “The front row last year was fun. It was awesome. It was one of my greatest accomplishments actually. I’m trying to have an even greater one this year. I don’t have a mini borg to show for it.”

Andretti says that all of his focus now is on the race car. He said that he doesn’t have a car to put his No. 98 Honda on the pole, so why not start eyeing a race win instead?

“I have my dad calling my race and he always pulls some kind of magic and I think right now I feel like we have a car that if track position materializes we can stay there,” Andretti continued. “It’s 500 miles still and anything can happen.”

Andretti said that this year is all about a different perspective and mentality too. In the past, he used to pay close attention to the speed charts. He wanted to be quick man at the Speedway each day. But, he’s grown to learn that being fast in practice gives you a false sense of security. It’s not real. To be fast in practice, all you need is a fresh set of Firestone tires and a big tow. He knows how to find that. But, finding that pace isn’t the route to victory lane on race day. 

“I’m paying a lot less attention to speeds this year because I think I used to try to just be quickest every time on track which is great, but it’s new tires it’s in the tow, it’s false,” he told me. “The car doesn’t have the speed for pole this year so I’m just focusing on the race.

“All my focus this month has been on the race car and not necessarily having new tires in a big tow. That’s a comfortable situation. I’m trying to put myself in uncomfortable situations because the race is not comfortable.”

As to if he has a car to win?

“Yes I do. I think we’re still a few changes away to be honest but we’re close. 

As to what he learned from last year to apply to this?

“I knew on Carb Day last year that we were out of it because of reasons that I hopefully learned from for this year.”

Andretti Autosport in general ended up turning those frustrations immediately around after Indy, but to start 2021, those frustrations are again coming back. Colton Herta won in St. Pete, but that’s the only high point for this team all year thus far.

Herta, finished 13th in the GMR Grand Prix and sits 10th in points. The best finisher among the group was Alexander Rossi in seventh for his sixth top 10 in eight starts here, but he’s only 14th in points, 85 markers back. Rossi, was frustrated after qualifying on Friday as he started 14th in the race. The seventh place run on Saturday was his best result of the year as he’s not had a top five since last September at Mid-Ohio and hasn’t won since 2019.

Ryan Hunter-Reay had a solid day in the Grand Prix in 12th but he’s still 17th in points coming into the ‘500 now. James Hinchcliffe came home 18th as he sits 20th overall in the standings.

They’ll add Andretti and Stefan Wilson for the ‘500. The Indy 500 also pays double points, so if they can have a solid outing next weekend here, then they can certainly get back into the thick of things.

It’s two fold though. The double points are a big way for them to show their might and get back into the thick of things for this championship. On the flip side, if they don’t do well, then they could be down and out by time we get to the halfway point of the year in Belle Isle.

“I think as always you’ve got to take it one step at a time regardless on what track it’s at or how many points are on the table” Hinchcliffe told me. “There’s still a lot of racing to go. For sure none of us are in the championship conversation at the moment but we’ve got a lot of opportunity to get some points and turn this thing around. We didn’t start off great as a team last year, but by the end of the season I’d argue we were the strongest team on the track. We’ve just got to refind that mojo a little earlier in the year than last year.”

Hunter-Reay said this is a great opportunity to stack points but isn’t necessarily a fan of it. He said you shouldn’t get penalized for one bad race but on the flip side, you should see some kind of gain for having a good run in the biggest race too. 

That’s how big Indy is for this organization now.

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