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Few IndyCar Series drivers are as intense as Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay, which means a frustrating 2016 has him even more eager to bounce back this season.

The 2012 series champion looks at last year as “a season of missed opportunities” as his team struggled on street courses and he finished 12th in the points, his worst showing since 2009.

Team owner Michael Andretti made a series of offseason moves to bolster the program, including the hiring of Eric Bretzman as technical director. Bretzman won three series titles and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 as Scott Dixon’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Despite the street-course problems, Hunter-Reay and his teammates were strong contenders to win the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil last May. Teammate Alexander Rossi won the race in his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda and teammate Carlos Munoz, who has since signed with AJ Foyt Racing and been replaced by Takuma Sato, finished second in the No. 26 Honda.

Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy 500 winner, led a race-high 52 laps but was collected in a pit-road incident involving another teammate, Townsend Bell, and Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and finished 24th.

Hunter-Reay’s stability with the team was assured with the September announcement that primary sponsor DHL has signed on through 2020. Not that the 36-year-old Floridian needed extra incentive.

“I'm always so motivated no matter what when I get in the race car,” said Hunter-Reay. “That's how I've always been my whole career just because I've always had to get in and prove myself to keep my ride.

“I have a lot of stability now with DHL. Obviously this is a great, great partner. It's great for the series. I have four years left on my deal right now, and that stability within INDYCAR, so big thanks to DHL and Andretti Autosport on that.”

He laments an Indy 500 that got away, which became the story of his “could have, should have” season.

“I knew after halfway through that race that I had a car to win it, it was just a matter of getting to that sprint, to that fight at the end,” Hunter-Reay said. “And then Pocono, again, same situation, 500-mile race, very similar circumstances. Those were two wins I feel like got away.

"If we'd have been there at the shootout at the end, I think we would have had a good shot at either of them.”

He finished third in the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, despite dropping nearly a lap off the pace when an electronics malfunction forced him to make an unscheduled pit stop to recycle the control unit. That was his best race result of the season; he also finished third at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the second race of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.

He’s won 16 races with 35 podiums and six poles in an Indy car career that began in 2003, but last year marked the first season he didn’t win a race since 2009 when he split driving duties with Vision Racing and AJ Foyt Racing.

Hunter-Reay is confident his team won’t be playing catch-up again in the Honda with aero kits frozen for 2017. INDYCAR will introduce a universal aero kit for all competitors in 2018.

“I don't want to make it seem like it's a lame-duck year for us,” he said. “This is something that we can progress on. We know the areas we need to improve in, and we've been focusing on that this offseason. I think we can improve there. There's no reason why we can't and there's no excuse not to, so that's something that we're very focused on and I feel like we have a great opportunity to win four or five races this season, hopefully more.

“But it's something where we're going to have to go out and prove it. Street courses are a big part of this series. I think our superspeedway package has shown it's been strong. One other area that really threw us for a loop last year is we've always been very, very strong at Iowa (Speedway), and it was just completely turned on its head for us last year. So that's a big head scratcher for us, and we have some ideas on where we need to improve there. We'll be testing there, so hopefully we'll have an opportunity to right that.”

His outlook for 2017 is quite simple: Hunter-Reay expects to be the consistent force he was before last season.

“My goal is to really make for stability on the 28 car because we do have four seasons ahead of us (with DHL). That's something that we had the stability side of it, something we had in our most successful years, 2012 through ’14,” he said. “We had the same guys working together.

“Hopefully we can accomplish that, but in this industry, people are always moving around, and you're just trying to keep them in the same spot for as long as possible.”

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Chip Ganassi Racing was the first Verizon IndyCar Series team to hit the track in 2017, with all four of its drivers testing Thursday at Sebring International Raceway in central Florida.

The team was scheduled to test at Sebring on Dec. 9 but didn’t turn a wheel due to rain and wet track conditions. Mike Hull, the team’s managing director, called Thursday’s makeup test a very productive day and important since CGR is returning to Honda this season after three seasons with Chevrolet.

“We ran all four cars today, all day until dark,” Hull said. “Each car had a pretty large list individually. There were some common items on the list but a lot of individual items. Being a team with four cars and having a new product to test with this being our first test day with all four cars, we got a lot accomplished today. We learned an awful lot. We explored the opportunity we had to get it done today without any issues.

“All in all, it was really good.”

CGR returns its same stable of drivers for 2017 – four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, 2004 champ Tony Kanaan, veteran Charlie Kimball and second-year shoe Max Chilton. The December test rainout allowed the team extra time to examine more data and receive additional help from Honda with vehicle dynamics to prepare for Thursday’s test. Hull also credited Sebring officials for getting the track ready in early January.

“We probably added 20 percent to our test list by having three weeks to talk about it,” Hull said. “The car that we are racing today is totally new for us. Yes, it's the same DW-12, but the weight distribution (between the Chevrolet and Honda engines and aero kits) is different, so the way the mechanical aspect of the car acts, you have almost to take the notebook you have and throw it away mechanically with the suspension part of the car. The aero is certainly new for us, so we have to match the aero to that.”

The Honda car also runs at a different ride height than the Chevrolet.

“We had to relearn a lot of things that we probably had tossed out,” Hull admitted. “The damper program that we had, we needed a complete rethink. The engineers that work together had to come together on what we should be trying opposed to what has worked for us the last three years.

“You have to have this open-minded aspect of what you will do when you change products and that is what we have done.”

One benefit of the canceled December test is it allowed the team to conduct its annual post-season meeting where the drivers and engineers went through everything that happened during the entire 2016 season.

“We got a lot out of December even though we didn't run on the racetrack,” Hull said. “It helped us understand where we need to go as a team.”

Hull expects Honda to have a fantastic season in 2017.

“I think it's a great lineup and Honda has some really strong teams,” Hull said. “We are the new guys on the block here and hopefully we can work together with all of the Honda teams to where we all run respectively on the racetrack.”

The 17-race Verizon IndyCar Series season begins March 12 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

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Will Power is so eager to get back racing on the streets of St. Petersburg, he showed up a month early.

The 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion and two-time winner of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was in the Tampa Bay city Tuesday to commemorate the official beginning of construction to build the 1.8-mile temporary street course that will open the 2017 season March 10-12.

Since his St. Pete debut in 2008, Power has seemingly owned the track. In addition to the two race wins on the circuit that combines city streets with a runway of Albert Whitted Airport, the Australian ace has netted a pair of runner-up finishes and six – count ‘em, six – pole positions. That includes 2016, when Power for the second consecutive year set the track record (1 minute, 0.0658 of a second; 107.882 mph) on his way to earning the Verizon P1 Award.

Will Power and Colton HertaLast year’s pole was all the more impressive because the 35-year-old Australian was diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms after qualifying that forced him to sit out the race where he was the clear favorite to win. A thorough physical exam the day after the race concluded it was an inner-ear infection, not a concussion. Missing the race put the Team Penske driver in a points deficit he was unable to recover from and he finished second in the championship to teammate Simon Pagenaud.

Now healthy, armed with a new diet and better-defined workout regimen, Power (shown in the middle of the photo at right on "Tampa Bay's Morning Blend") can’t wait to attack when the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to open its season for the seventh straight year on the St. Pete circuit. It will mark the 14th Indy car race in St. Pete history.

“Although I did have the concussion symptoms (last year), I was also struggling physically as well,” said Power, who also had several food allergies uncovered during additional testing. “I was very determined to turn up this year feeling good and able to compete at the right level.”

The dry-witted Power is at a loss to explain why he has had so much success at St. Petersburg, but he’s not about to complain.

“It’s such a flowing track, it really feels like it comes naturally to me,” said the winner of 29 career races – tied for 11th all time – since he joined the Indy car scene in late 2005. “I don’t know why, it just does. It’s just a really fun, flowing track for me. It’s funny when things just click with you, it’s not that much of a challenge, it’s just fun. But it is a tough track when you think about Turns 4 through 9. It’s a pretty technical section.”

Adding to the challenge this year is the fact that much of the track surface has been repaved. It will add more grip in key areas and could put his new lap record in jeopardy.

“Being fully resurfaced, it’s going to be like a road course, which fully changes things a lot. It will make it a different track but I think it will be awesome.”

Colton Herta (on far right in photo above), the 16-year-old son of Verizon IndyCar Series team co-owner Bryan Herta who will make his Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires debut on race weekend, was on hand for the track construction event as well and is excited about the track repaving.

“It’s going to be cool,” Herta said. “It’s going to be a bit quicker this year because they repaved some sections of it. It should make for better racing and it’s going to be fun. I can’t wait to get on the track.”

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Helio Castroneves has witnessed it all at Team Penske throughout his 17-year tenure with the top-notch organization. But the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner thinks nothing may match what is on the horizon for him in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Castroneves is coming off a 2016 season as the caboose of what was a Penske sweep of the top three in points, led by series champion Simon Pagenaud and runner-up Will Power. But that isn’t what has the 41-year-old Brazilian’s attention. The focus has already shifted to the upcoming season and the all-star lineup that includes team owner Roger Penske’s signing of Josef Newgarden.

The talented 25-year-old Tennessean was announced in October as the replacement in the No. 2 Chevrolet to two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, who will remain with the team in a one-off as the fifth entry for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28. Newgarden finished fourth in this year’s championship driving for Ed Carpenter Racing.

Castroneves, a 29-time Indy car race winner, got a firsthand look at his new teammate during offseason testing in October at Road America and Gateway Motorsports Park. In fact, it was Castroneves’ No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet that Newgarden drove in the Gateway test.

“First of all, he’s a new generation (of driver),” Castroneves said. “Josef is American as well, which is something that, for Roger it doesn’t matter about the nationality, what he wants is actual results. Josef has been able to show – I wouldn’t say a small team but one not comparable to Team Penske – victories, potential and good results.

Castroneves, entering his 20th year of Indy car competition in 2017, added that there was a curiosity factor in wondering where Newgarden, who has three wins and eight podiums the past two seasons, found his speed. That made it all the more important to add him to the lineup.

“I feel that in some of the areas he was extremely fast and we want to know why, so let’s take Josef and put him in our group and hopefully make it happen,” Castroneves said.

“I feel the first test we had together, I was very surprised that he was able to adapt very quickly to the team, to the setups and to the cars. He was extremely fast. So, I feel that we’re going to have another young guy here pushing us, but at the end of the day it’s always good to have quality drivers around us because it helps to make us better as well.”

A lineup that has undoubtedly everybody’s attention heading into the season, the four-time championship runner-up was quick to joke that maybe the Indianapolis 500 should be renamed.

“I joked the other day, I said, ‘Who’s going to win the Penske 500?’ We have five cars, not only five cars, but we have a very good lineup for next year and it would be great to win another Indy 500 for Roger.”

Castroneves is suffering through a winless drought of more than two years himself, but he’s always one to watch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Come May, his personal focus will again be on joining the trio of all-time legends who have had their likeness placed four times on the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy.

“Indy is our main goal,” he said, “to bring another victory for Roger and hopefully tie Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr. and the greatest, Mr. A.J. Foyt.”

 

         

 

 

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