Things just didn't come together on the road courses this year for Marco and company. (LAT photo)
Well, I'm glad to be back on ovals: third place at Chicago was a good result for the No. 26 Team Venom Energy car and running in the top six most of the night at Kentucky was also encouraging. We're not the best cars out there, but I think if you look at how we've compared to Penske and Ganassi, we've made some gains and run ahead of some of them during the races. I've got high hopes of fighting in the top three at the last two rounds, Motegi and Homestead.
Andretti Autosport, as a team, has been struggling on the road courses this year. We're not way off, but in a field as super-competitive as the IZOD IndyCar Series, you don't need much to go wrong to be on the fringes of the Fast 12 instead of fighting in the Firestone Fast Six. We need to step it up. When you're rolling off the truck with the same setup that you didn't do too well with at the previous event, how optimistic can you be? And the little signs of promise, I think, are sometimes false encouragement. I was top qualifier of the Andretti Autosport cars at Watkins Glen and I think we had a fifth-place car in the race – but like most teams, we wrecked our soft [red] tires. We made a bad tire choice putting on a set of used reds that had already done half a stint. We just abused the front and went from fifth to wherever we ended up and threw it away. My foot was flat to the floor going up the hill, but the car was sliding so much that we scrubbed speed and people were just sailing by me. I don't even want to know where I ended up in the results!
Then Mid-Ohio, we started ninth and finished ninth – and then discovered that we had the wrong differential in. It seems like when we're OK for pace, we get something wrong in the decision process, or on a weekend when we're way out, one of us will salvage a result and we all leave the circuit thinking it's not too bad. Well, it is bad by this team's standards! It has to be bad when, even on a weekend when the team operates perfectly, we still get only mediocre results.
In my opinion, it's the same frustration – we don't have enough overall grip and that makes our job to find a balance between front and rear twice as hard. When you have good overall grip, you just throw more at either end, depending on what your car needs. But when we're tipping these cars from understeer to loose with just a single turn of front wing, there's something more fundamental wrong: It's like we're missing something even before we hit the track. I'm certain it's not my engineer and it's not me: I think it's a basic concept we just don't know about yet.
There's no magic to what the Penske and Ganassi drivers are doing – they are all great drivers, don't get me wrong, but they are beatable. We just need to find out what they've got that we haven't.
I admit Sonoma was my bad: In qualifying, I should have been up there with my teammates Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the top 10, but I made a mistake on what happened to be my quick lap. I dropped a wheel in the dirt, which left me back in 18th, so I had to get aggressive in the race to try and make up for it. On a circuit where it's so hard to pass, that didn't really work in our favor…
Anyway, the team is due to make some big changes this winter, and they'll be changes that help us on all circuits. Even on the ovals, we have some work to do because when we're all absolutely flat-out in qualifying, we are still that crucial mile an hour off.
Iowa was a strange one because we qualified well in third and I took the lead from Will Power after about 35 laps, but I hadn't gone conservative enough. Tony Kanaan had gone to what I'd planned to be my race setup and ended up winning. Unfortunately, I raced my qualifying setup and it just bit me. Everything was fine and dandy in clean air but at the same time, as soon as I got to the lead, I knew I was in big trouble because I had no understeer in the car: On those short ovals you've got to be almost understeering like a pig at the start, and that way it comes into a fairly neutral balance at the end. Well, my car was balanced to start with and then went loose, so I ended up abusing the right-rear tire and that was that.
But those short ovals are different, and Chicago and Kentucky have been fairly encouraging, so for the final two races of the season, I'm reasonably optimistic. Homestead in particular is a race where we've traditionally run well. Of course, with almost 30 cars out there, we've all seen there's some mayhem. It's all about when the final yellow comes, whether you have an opening in front of you at the restart and getting your timing just right and doing it better than the other guys. It's going to be crazy again, but that always makes for a bit of fun.
Like I said at the start of this column, if we do everything right, there's no reason we can't end with a couple of podiums, if not a win. In a frustrating year where we're now just waiting to make a big leap forward over the off-season, that would motivate everyone.