Friday, February 14, 2020

2020 IndyCar Team Preview: Andretti Autosport

We have reached the fifth 2020 IndyCar team preview and it is Andretti Autosport and the team is growing this year.

With the absorption of Harding Steinbrenner Racing the four-car fleet has grown to five and when combining the two teams it is two operations that should be happy but not satisfied with 2019 coming together for 2020.

There are no driver changes for 2020 and the combined effort will see Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta lead the way, Ryan Hunter-Reay hoping to remain as one of the team's top fighters and Marco Andretti and Zach Veach both needing a massive turnaround.

2019 Andretti Autosport Review:
Wins: 2 (Long Beach, Road America)
Poles: 2 (Long Beach, Belle Isle I)
Championship Finishes: 3rd (Alexander Rossi), 8th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 16th (Marco Andretti), 18th (Zach Veach)

2019 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Review:
Wins: 2 (Austin, Laguna Seca)
Poles: 3 (Road America, Portland, Laguna Seca)
Championship Finish: 7th (Colton Herta)

Zach Veach - #26 Gainbridge Honda
Veach's sophomore season was an unfortunate step back.

A 14th at St. Petersburg was followed with a 22nd at Austin when Veach went off course at the start after starting ninth. He would start 20th or worse in the next four races and while he drove from 23rd to 12th at Barber and 20th to 12th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he was 17th at Long Beach and he was 19th in the championship entering the Indianapolis 500.

Veach was collateral damage in the final caution of the Indianapolis 500 but he was 29th and had not had a top ten finish through the first six races. Things turned around at Belle Isle but he nearly threw it all away when he spun on the pace lap of the first race. Instead of starting eighth, he was at the back but in the shortened race, Veach used strategy to finish eighth. He qualified third for the second race and came home in eighth again.

He coughed up a top ten finish at Texas when he brushed the barrier, was not a factor at all at Road America and was 13th at Toronto. His only other strong race of the season was seventh at Iowa after starting 20th. Veach's season ended with five consecutive results outside the top ten, three of which were outside the top fifteen, two of which were outside the top twenty and he had only one lead lap finish during that time.

Numbers to Remember:
3: Retirements in 2019 after having zero in 2018.

4: Laps led in 2019 after leading two laps in 2018

6: Lead lap finishes in 2019 after eight in 2018.

8.6: Veach's procreant of laps completed dropped 8.6% in 2019 from 98.4% in 2018 to 89.8% in 2019.

Save his ride.

This is Veach's third year of a three-year-deal. His rookie year was good. He had some rough results but had races where he was competitive and showed he was getting the hang of it. His sophomore season was worse, much worse.

There was not one race in 2019 where you felt Veach was any closer to winning a race than he was in 2018. He started outside the top fifteen in nine races. He finished better than his starting position only seven times. His only lead lap finish on an oval was at Iowa, where he picked up his best finish of seventh.

In a year where Veach should have shown progress he made steps back. Veach was behind Marco Andretti in the championship driving for the same team. People love bashing Marco Andretti. Veach was worse than him. Think about that next time you take a crack-shot at Andretti.

Veach has to make a big leap in 2019. Everything has to be at least doubled. He needs to more than double his number of top ten finishes and his number of top ten starting positions. He definitely needs to double his number of lead lap finishes and he needs to blow up his number of laps led to astronomical proportions compared to four laps led.

While doubling everything Veach also has to do things he has never done before. Winning a race would be great but he needs to get at least one top five finish. He cannot go through three seasons without a top five finish and because this is year three he needs to get at least two or three top five finishes to show the first one was not a fluke.

Veach cannot be the worst Andretti Autosport driver for a second consecutive season. If he is I think Andretti Autosport will let him go unless the Gainbridge money is good enough. The team is taking on a massive five-car effort. Offloading one of those entries after 2020 might be welcomed and if Veach makes it easy for them it would be greatly appreciated.

Alexander Rossi - #27 NAPA Auto Parts/AutoNation Honda
After being vice-champion in 2018, Rossi headed into 2019 with a lot of confidence and high expectations.

The season started with a fifth at St. Petersburg on a good but not great day. Rossi was fighting for a victory in Austin with Will Power but Felix Rosenqvist's accident brought out a caution before either driver could make their final pit stop. Rossi went from second to cycled out of the top ten. He went on to charge to ninth. Another fifth followed at Barber and at Long Beach, Rossi put on a beat down, winning the race by over 20 seconds.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis was taken from Rossi before he event took the green flag when Patricio O'Ward ran into the back of him. Rossi spent the first few laps getting repairs and he was out of it. In the Indianapolis 500, Rossi was a man on a mission. He was strong all race and had to overcome re-fueling issues on multiple stops. He made daring pass after daring pass and found himself leading while the Chevrolets could not match Honda's fuel mileage. When the final caution came out the Chevrolets were able to make it without needing an extra stop and it put Rossi against Simon Pagenaud for the final 25 miles. The two traded blows and Rossi did all he could but Pagenaud pulled it out.

The first race was shaping up to be victory for Rossi but a caution before his first stop would cost him the lead. However, Rossi caught a break when the field did not bunch up and instead of dropping from first to tenth, he emerged in second behind Josef Newgarden. The only problem is the damp track off line made any attempted pass suicidal with a lack of grip. Rossi tried to edge through but finished second. He ended that weekend with a fifth place result.

Rossi worked his way to the front at Texas and it seemed like a race that was going to go in his favor but Newgarden's crew nailed the strategy and used cautions to leapfrog Newgarden up to the lead after spending much of the race outside the top five. In the closing laps it was Newgarden vs. Rossi again but Rossi could not make it through and was runner-up again.

Then came Road America, another beat down, another victory by over 20 seconds and this time Rossi led 54 of 55 laps. While hoping to give Rossi the spark needed for a championship push, he followed it with a third at Toronto and a fifth at Mid-Ohio while Newgarden ended in the gravel trap.

Rossi headed to Pocono 16 points behind Newgarden but his race did not last a lap. Contact prior to turn two ended any shot of victory. The crew scrambled for repairs and to get the car out to make up some points but significant ground was lost. It did not help at Gateway when Rossi's crew decided to stretch fuel instead of making one final stop under caution and trying to work his way up in the closing laps. He was unable to stretch the fuel, pitted under green flag conditions and ended up 13th.

A third at Portland slowed the bleeding but he entered Laguna Seca with a lot of ground to make up. The car was not there in the finale to push for the victory and that was needed. He was sixth in the finale and dropped to third in the championship.

Numbers to Remember:
7: Consecutive races without a lap led and seven consecutive starts without a victory.

8: Rossi's longest drought without a lap led in his IndyCar career.

5.5: Average starting position in 2019, Rossi's best average starting position in a single season.

42: Consecutive finsihes. Rossi's most recent retirement was at Texas in 2017.

Win more and win more consistently.

Rossi was a championship-contender for the entire 2019 season but he did not lead a lap over the final seven races of the season. He cannot do that again. Rossi needs to win three to five races to win the championship. He could do it. There isn't a place where Rossi seems out of contention. He has won the 500-mile races on superspeedways. He has won on street courses and road courses. He has won in the wet.

I guess short ovals are one place where he could improve. He has yet to win a short oval but he has had strong runs at Phoenix and Gateway. Iowa is a place where results could be better. Barber is one track that Rossi has openly expressed being one of his least favorites. I think for 2020 to be a championship season he needs to be great at all the places that frustrate him. That is one way we can see growth. If he is succeeding where he otherwise found displeasure than the rest of the field will be in trouble.

The championship was within Rossi's grasp in 2019 but when it came time to step up and take the championship he could not put the results together and that cannot be repeated in 2020. He won two races in 2019 and in each victory the margin of victory was greater than 20 seconds. If you can win races like that you should be able to pull out other races. There were a few races that went against Rossi where he otherwise could have been the winner. Cautions caught him out at Belle Isle and Texas and in turn it allowed Josef Newgarden to take two victories while Rossi settled for runner-up finishes.

That should not repeat in 2020. There are going to be a few races where Rossi is leading and does not have the caution go against him or he will be third and have the caution in his favor.

I think Rossi is going to be back in the championship discussion again and he will go into Laguna Seca with a third consecutive shot at the Astor Cup. I think he needs to go into the finale leading the championship. Rossi has led the championship after only two races in his IndyCar career, both in 2017, after Long Beach and Belle Isle I. I think Rossi needs to lead the championship after at least six or seven races. Ultimately, it does not matter how many races you are leading the championship after but it does matter if you are leading after Laguna Seca. However, in Rossi's case, I think it is important he controls the championship for a little bit in 2020.

Ryan Hunter-Reay - #28 DHL Honda
The driver known for mechanical issues coming at the wrong time started his season in such a fashion. Hunter-Reay lost an engine in the season opener at St. Petersburg on lap 20 after starting fifth.

The good news is Hunter-Reay was able to rebound. He was third at Austin after spending almost the entire race in the top five. He was eighth at Barber and fifth at Long Beach. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis was lost when James Hinchcliffe spun Hunter-Reay and it dropped Hunter-Reay a lap down. Indianapolis 500 qualifying was not kind to Hunter-Reay. He started 22nd but he worked his way forward in the race. Never a contender for the victory, Hunter-Reay did finish eighth.

He had a good weekend in Detroit with a fourth in race one and he was fifth in race two despite starting 17th and having a tire puncture in the final five laps of that race.

Texas was Hunter-Reay's strongest race and he really should have won it. The only problem is Hunter-Reay was planning for a four-stop strategy but the tire falloff was not as great as expected and other teams were set to make it on three stops. Cautions played into Hunter-Reay's favor and he was able to squeak out a fifth place night when it could have been much worse

Hunter-Reay hit a rough patch at the start of summer, 11th at Road America after using the alternate tire at the wrong time, 16th at Toronto and 17th at Iowa after starting strong but he lost all momentum after the red flag in the middle of the race. He bounced back with a third at Mid-Ohio.

He was one of the five drivers caught up in the opening lap Pocono melee. He was eighth at Gateway after the S├ębastien Bourdais caution came after his pit stop and it cost him a shot at a top five finish. He had a brain fade at Portland, missed his breaking point, collided with Jack Harvey and instead of a top five result it was 18th. His season ended with a tenth place finish at Laguna Seca, which came after he stalled on his first pit stop and dropped to 24th.

Numbers to Remember:
2: Podium finishes in 2019, Hunter-Reay's fewest in a season since he had one in 2009..

1: Hunter-Reay led one race in 2019, Texas, where he led 90 laps. It was his fewest races led since 2009 when he did not lead a lap that season.

9.6: Average starting position in 2019. It was only the sixth time Hunter-Reay has had an average starting position below 10.0 in his 16-year IndyCar career.

3: Top five starts in 2019, the second time in three seasons Hunter-Ray had three top five starts in a season.

Get back to where he was at in 2018.

Hunter-Reay ended 2018 fighting to retain the top spot in Andretti Autosport. He might not have matched Rossi's results but Hunter-Reay won two races and got back into the top five of the championship. In 2019, Hunter-Reay wasn't landing any punches.

There were two strong races for Hunter-Reay in 2019: Austin and Texas. Texas was the only one he had a sniff of winning. Outside of Texas, his oval results were uncharacteristically poor and I am afraid we are seeing the inevitable decline already begin for Hunter-Reay.

He is 39 years old. He has not won a race in three of the last four seasons. While he has finished in the top ten of the championship in three consecutive seasons, Hunter-Reay has failed to lead a triple-digit number of laps in four of the last five seasons. He has only one pole position in the last five seasons.

I think Hunter-Reay needs a season where he shows not all is lost. I think that means winning at least one race and being close to fifth in the championship or picking up at least four or five podium finishes in a season and again fighting for the top five in the championship. The grid is getting tougher. It is hard to imagine Hunter-Reay finishing ahead of any of the top seven in the championship from 2019. Based on 2019 championship results Hunter-Reay is third in the Andretti stable and he was eighth overall!

For the last three seasons we have been watching Andretti Autosport slowly transition from being Hunter-Reay's team to being Rossi's team. In 2020, we are going to see it cemented as Rossi and Colton Herta's team and it will likely stay that way for most of this decade.

Colton Herta - #88 Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Honda
Herta left us with a rookie season to remember.

The season started well with an eighth at St. Petersburg. He qualified fourth at Austin and spent much of the race in third. For the start he was close to Will Power and Alexander Rossi but those two slowly pulled away. Herta was left alone in third, far from challenging the top two but with no pressure from behind. Timing was in his favor. He made his final stop before the Rosenqvist caution and when Power and Rossi were caught out, Herta inherited the lead. Put into the lead of his third career start with 15 laps to go, a mistake would have been understandable but Herta didn't put a wheel wrong. He flew away from the field and became the youngest winner in IndyCar history.

The bad news for Herta is while his rookie season will be remembered for blazing speed it will also be remembered for reliability issues. He lost fuel pressure early at Barber. He brushed the barrier while in the top ten at Long Beach. When James Hinchcliffe got into Ryan Hunter-Reay, Herta was collected and his race ended there. He qualified fifth for his Indianapolis 500 debut and the gearbox broke after three laps. He finally got another finish at Belle Isle but both those results were 12th place finishes after starting in the top five.

Herta needed a great day and he had it at Texas, running in the top five, challenging the big boys of Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Rossi and Hunter-Reay but even that race did not end well. Herta and Dixon made contact in turn three while both were fighting for top five results. On a night when Herta should have taken a fifth place finish, he headed home with 18th in the record books.

Needing to a strong summer, Herta opened it with a pole position at Road America. He lost the lead at the start to Rossi but remained at the front. The alternate tire fell away from Herta late in the stint and it cost him some ground but he remained in the top five. The team decided to go back to the alternate tire for his final stint and he started strong but the tires were gone in the closing laps. Herta went from a top five to eighth in the final laps, a good day but not as good as it could have been.

He followed Road America with a seventh at Toronto. Mechanical issues cost him again at Iowa when a half shaft broke while he was in the top ten with less than 30 laps to go. He had an eighth at Mid-Ohio, spun while in the top ten at Pocono and he was ninth at Gateway.

Another pole position came at Portland but again he struggled with tire life at the end of the stint and Dixon and Power pounced. Herta lost some ground but he did manage to finish fourth. The season ended with Herta's best performance, another pole position but this time he went on to lead 83 laps, hold off a challenge from Power and get his second victory of his career at Laguna Seca.

Numbers to Remember:
3: Top five finishes in 2019, victories at Austin and Laguna Seca and fourth at Portland.

4: Finishes outside the top twenty in 2019, consecutive races from Barber to the Indianapolis 500.

7: Retirements in 2019.

18.8: Average finish on ovals in 2019. He had four finishes outside the top fifteen and a ninth at Gateway.

1,651: Laps completed in 2019, the fewest among the drivers that started every race and fewer than Marcus Ericsson, who missed a race.

Fewer mechanical failures and better oval results.

A lot of people were upset Herta wasn't rookie of the year despite winning two races but when you consider Herta retired from over 40% of the races and had only one more top ten finish than retirements it is kind of surprising he was seventh in the championship. However, if that kind of season can get Herta seventh in the championship, what is possible if the team cleans up its act.

Herta won twice but probably could have had three or four victories. We are going to see Herta win multiple times again and I think 2020 could be a season where Herta is a championship contender. He made a few mistakes in 2019 but most of the poor results were not because of driver error. It the equipment was there, Herta would have easily taken rookie of the year and perhaps challenged for top five in the championship as a rookie.

As a sophomore, I think Herta is going to experience fewer failures and if he can match his extraordinary qualifying record he could position himself to become the youngest champion in IndyCar history.

While the oval results were atrocious, Herta's races were quite encouraging. Texas was a race he could have won and Iowa was a top ten that slipped through his hands. He is going to have at least one or two top five finishes on ovals in 2020 and those will go a long way to an improved championship finish.

Marco Andretti - #98 U.S. Concrete Honda
Andretti returned for his 14th IndyCar season in 2019.

The year started with a 13th at St. Petersburg and a sixth place finish followed at Austin from 20th in the grid, aided a little by a timely pit stop and caution. He would finish 14th, 13th and 13th in the next three races but he qualified tenth for the Indianapolis 500 and in a tribute livery to his grandfather Mario's Indianapolis 500 victory 50 years prior it felt there may be a little Indianapolis magic coming to life in front of our eyes.

Unfortunately, it became clear early in the race the day would not be a fairy tale. Andretti dropped quickly and was pretty much out of the race at lap ten.

He was 16th in the first Belle Isle race but had a strong second race to finish sixth. He got another top ten at Texas. Electrical issues ended his day early at Road America but he rebounded to start seventh at Toronto and finish tenth. It would get tougher from there.

Iowa was difficult and the team parked the car after two-thirds of the race had been completed. He was 15th at Mid-Ohio. Even after five cars were taken out at Pocono, Andretti was two laps down in 15th. He tried to get a three-stop strategy to work at Gateway but the cautions did not go his way. He was able to finish tenth but it could have been better. His season ended with results of 13th at Portland and 14th at Laguna Seca.

Numbers to Remember:
0: Top five starts in 2019.

7: Andretti's best starting position in 2019 was seventh at Toronto.

8: Lead lap finishes in 2019, his fewest in a season since he had five in 2012.

72: Races since Andretti's most recent podium finish, a third at Fontana.

Get back into the top fifteen in the championship, not be the worst Andretti Autosport championship finisher and rediscover oval success.

Andretti is all over of the place. It was not long ago he was a regular in the top ten of the championship but in recent seasons tenth in the championship has appeared to be in another galaxy for Andretti. He picks up a few good results but those are quickly washed out with mediocre days where he is not even mention. It is not that Andretti is tearing up race cars or running off track.

He has just been slow. That is harsh to say but there is no other way to describe it. He started outside the top fifteen in 12 of 17 races in 2019. He had two top ten starts all season.

There is one area where a lot of improvements can be made.

Ovals are another.

People once though ovals were the one place Andretti could pull out some strong results and hoist him a few spots up the championship standings but in recent years his oval performances have been his weak spot.

He has not had a top five finish on an oval since he was third at Fontana in 2015. In the 22 oval races over the previous four seasons, Andretti has four top ten finishes with his best oval finish being seventh at Pocono in 2017, his average finish over those 22 races is 13.5 but he has only nine lead lap finishes in those 22 races. The good news is two of those top ten finishes were last year. The bad news is both were tenth place finishes at Texas and Gateway.

I think Andretti needs one top five finish. He needs at least nine top ten finishes with at least three of those coming on ovals and he should aim for his average finish on ovals being somewhere between 9.0 and 11.5.

The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 15th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. ET.