INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

End Of Season Shine For Andretti Autosport?

Its no secret, the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season hasn’t been great for Andretti Autosport. But, can they do what they did in 2020 and end the season right? See, the good news for them is that we’re going to some very good tracks for them to close out the year.

In Portland, Colton Herta was fourth in 2019. Ryan Hunter-Reay was runner-up in 2018. Alexander Rossi was eighth and third respectively himself.

Then we go to Laguna Seca to where Herta started on the pole and led 83 of 90 laps that day. Current AA drivers went 6-9-10 that race.

Finally, we wrap the season off in Long Beach to where Rossi dominated in each of the last two years on that street circuit. Both coming from the pole. He led 71 of 85 laps in 2018 and 80 of 85 in 2019.

In 2018, AA went 1-4-6. In 2019, they went 1-5.

Is this final three race stretch their time to finally shine? They need to hope so.

Andretti Autosport has to wonder what they did to the racing God’s to piss them off the last couple of years. This has been one bad misfortune after another for them. It was on full display in fact for the last race at the World Wide Technology Raceway back in August.

Coming to the final round of stops, they had three cars in the top six including two of which on their ways to a podium. Then, their top two drivers each had misfortunes 15 laps from one another.

Herta, showed then that he has the ultimate worst luck out of anyone this year. He broke a drive shaft while leading on Lap 185 as his shots of winning snapped with an unfortunate exit. Herta’s car shot out of a cannon following his Lap 133 pit stop and went by Alexander Rossi a lap later, then Josef Newgarden a couple laps after that. His car was set up for the win, but more bad luck struck.

“Nothing I could have done there,” he said. “I imagine the clutch is just mileaged out. We were so freaking fast. We were so good at saving fuel. This isn’t how Andretti performs or how they operate their cars. It was just a fluke thing.”

That’s been his MO lately. He was collected in a first lap crash in the season opener at Barber. He had a mechanical failure in Texas 1. He was a victim of the first caution for the Indy 500 and was 16th. He was the wrong end of strategy in both Belle Isle races in finishing 14th and 4th respectively. In Nashville he was the best car/driver out there all weekend. He was quickest in every practice session then dominated from the pole. He even led 39 of the 1st 74 laps before crashing while running second in a day that got away from him due to all the cautions tying up strategy.

For Rossi, he crashed with 60 to go, three laps after his final stop. He had the pace for a podium, which would have been his first of the season. Instead, it was another bad result in a race of what might have been.

“I just had a big wiggle at the apex and then corrected it,” he said. “That just moved us up a half a lane and was just in the marbles. I thought it was going to come back quite honestly. It’s kind of weird. It was 100% my fault. It was a pretty minimum mistake but a huge consequence. I think we pretty easily could have been third. It’s a bummer. I just can’t catch a break. This one’s on me. We just have to reset and move on.”

Rossi, started off the year with a first lap crash in the season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park. A week later, he endured an incident in St. Pete with Graham Rahal. Then came a crash on the first lap in the second Texas race, only to be plagued with bad luck from the first caution in back-to-back weeks in Indy and Belle Isle 1, a broken wing in Belle Isle 2 and a bad caution flipping strategy in Nashville.

Last season came a crash while having a race winning car in the season finale on the streets of St. Pete. In Gateway was another first lap crash. For the Indy 500, came a questionable penalty on pit road while having a car that ran in the top three most of the afternoon. For Road America 1 came an early problem. Same for the Indy road course on July 4 last year with a mechanical issue. His ECU failed him at the start of the season opener in Texas.

Similar misfortune happened to James Hinchcliffe to start the race in Gateway as he had an ECU failure which forced him to be multiple laps down before the race even got started.

In the case for Rossi, he has to be frustrated. He seemed to be on a quick path to a championship once he won his second career NTT IndyCar Series race in Watkins Glen during that 2017 season. From the Toronto race that season through the one at Road America in 2019, Rossi had six wins, 16 podiums and 22 top five finishes in a span of 33 races. But, over the last 34 races, he’s yet to win, has just 7 podiums and 10 top fives.

He was second in the championship in 2018 and third in 2019. But, this dip started during the middle of that ’19 season which is why he didn’t hoist the Astor Cup championship trophy that season and why he’s hasn’t yet overall.

He had just one top five finish, a podium in Road America 2, in his first nine starts of 2020. Then, they finally turned things around in Mid-Ohio last September to close the year off with four podiums over the final five races. In the offseason, Andretti Autosport dropped a full time team and made some big internal changes to get this ship righted.

Unfortunately for them, it’s still not turned around. The organization has one win which came by Herta in the second race of the year. Rossi, has no podiums to show for it — hence the frustration.

Is this team related or bad luck related?

“I think it was just situations, right?” Rossi told me on Wednesday. “Like I think you look at how the first two races went, there was a lot of speed there, then we weren’t able to qualify in Texas, then I got hit before the green flag with Conor in Texas, then the GP was pretty good, then we ran out of fuel on lap 30 at the 500, then Detroit we were really strong, all that happened.

“Yeah, I mean, the pace has been great; it hasn’t really resulted in much. Obviously with the field now, every small mistake and issue and mis-step in setup decisions from session to session has a bigger effect than it used to. It requires everyone to really be perfect throughout the weekend.

“It is what it is. I think the Indy GP, this past race was good. Nashville we obviously had good pace, but it didn’t result in anything. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s all down to some circumstances ultimately.

“But, yeah, as I’ve said many times before, I think the team’s done a great job from last year to this year in terms of how we go about the race weekends, pit stops, understanding the offset from the aeroscreen, all those things we’re in a much better position than last year. It just hasn’t really meant a whole lot quite yet.”

If it wasn’t for bad luck, Rossi would have won by now – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media

Does he ever doubt himself because of these misfortunes? Does he feel like he’s wasting prime years the last two seasons? I mean the potential has always been there but the results aren’t showing for it like they used to.

“Yeah, it’s a good question,” he told me.

“I think there’s certainly days where you feel like that. Again, at the end of the day you lose way more than you win in this sport. You have to be motivated by failures and losses. If you’re only motivated by winning, it’s going to be a tough road.

“I think we all as professional racing drivers learn that early in our careers, in go-karting at 13, 14 years old where you can only win a couple races a year on a great year.

“It is what it is. We’re focused forward and just executing the best we can every single opportunity that we go.”

See, he’s not getting any younger. He’ll be 30 next month. He has to see the rise and speed of these younger drivers and knows that if he wants to achieve greatness in this sport, time is of the essence.

Luckily, things are starting to come back around once again. He has a pair of top five results, both the only ones of the season, in the last three races. He has four top seven result in the last six overall. Is this the start of the turn of the corner again?

“I think we’re close,” Rossi continued. “I think if you look at the raw pace of the cars, I think it’s there. Despite all that, you look at where Colton is in the championship. I mean, you’d expect him to be in the top three, right, based on some of the performances he’s had? It doesn’t really necessarily mean anything if you’re not able to score points on Sundays.

“I think the team for the most part, I’d said we’re 85, 90% of the way there, which is again, like I said, a huge step. I think everyone kind of picked themselves up through the off-season and really carried on. We can’t let kind of the misfortune take the wind out of our sails and keep on every single weekend.”

So what is it that they are they missing to prevent them from getting these top fives and turning them into podiums? The speed is there, but what’s been plaguing them the most?

For starters, he’s right in the sense that bad luck is the big key.

“It is what it is,” he said. “I think the team is really doing a good job in a lot of areas. I think we had a good weekend in general at the GP. I think Nashville was really strong for the team. Yeah, I mean, I think coming out of the summer break, I think the pace and performance has been there.”

Starting Spots Key This Stretch?

Qualifying is always key in INDYCAR. But, in this final three race stretch, it could be even more crucial. See, 20 of the 22 races in Portland have seen the race winner come from the top five including nine of the last 10 from the top three. Next week in Laguna Seca, 21 of the 23 races saw the winner come from the top three. Then in Long Beach, the last five have came from the top four including two straight from the pole.

Does that mean you need to hit the qualifying balance/setups right over the final three weeks to ensure success?

Will Power Time?

Will Power has now had at least one win in every INDYCAR season since 2007. He’s had at least one pole every year for 13 straight seasons. But, we’re entering Will Power time too though. Or maybe already in it. These next three races are great chances for Power to continue his hot streak of three podiums in five races.

Power, should have won at Portland in 2018 but did so in 2019. Then, its to Laguna Seca and Long Beach to where he’s also very familiar.

He’s also usually very good at the end of seasons with three podiums in the last five races in 2017, four podiums in the final five in 2018, three top twos in the final four races of 2019 and two wins in the final five races last year. It’s Will Power time.

Will This Be An Unpredictable Race?

The top championship guys don’t have much success in Portland. Three of them (Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay) are rookies. Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Colton Herta and Graham Rahal have combined for zero podiums.

These guys are racing for a title, so this stat is one to watch closely. Who can get through the weekend with minimal damage? Who can maybe find their ways to a podium and put themselves in a championship position come the final two races?

Will Penske Win Out?

Team Penske is showing their might again to allow Josef Newgarden a third championship in five years. Will Power is heating up after starting on the pole and earning his third podium in five races now after securing a third place result in his No. 12 Chevrolet in Gateway. Their teammate Scott McLaughlin was fourth in his No. 3 Chevrolet to cap a brilliant night for the Penske organization the last time out.

Penske dominated the day in going 1-2 in practice that afternoon, took three of the top four starting spots in qualifying as well as three of the top four in the race. They’ve now won 3 of the last 4 races on the season including 6 of the last 8 in Gateway. This was their race to lose.

After going 0-for-9 to start the year off with, there’s a very real chance for them to end it 6-for-7 since the next two races are on natural road courses and they should have won in Road America then dominated the last two in Mid-Ohio and Indy.

They are really good on street courses like Long Beach too.

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