Hunter-Reay, Rossi ready to roll with top-five Long Beach starting spots

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LONG BEACH, Calif -- Andretti Autosport drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi are amped up heading into today’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, after both reached the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying Saturday.

Hunter-Reay will start the 85-lap race third in the No. 28 DHL Honda while second-year Verizon IndyCar Series driver Rossi qualified a career-best fifth in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda.

Hunter-Reay is coming off a frustrating 2016 season. The 2014 winner of the Indianapolis 500 went winless, scored only three podiums (St. Petersburg, Detroit Race 2 and Pocono) and ended 12th in the standings, his worst since joining Andretti Autosport in 2010.

This season got off to a good start for the 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion as he muscled his way through the field to finish fourth in the season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, after starting 12th.

All things considered, Hunter-Reay feels happy about his team’s direction.

“We are only going into the second round right now so the direction is good, the feeling of the team is good,” he said.

While the good start is promising, the 36-year-old resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida used last year as an example to not get ahead of himself.

“Last year, we finished third at St. Pete and we came here and we were lost,” Hunter-Reay said. “After a good race in St. Pete, I’d be optimistic usually about coming here. Last year taught me a lesson to hold back on it.”

Andretti Autosport made engineering changes over the offseason. Hunter-Reay was the lone driver in the four-car squad to not have any major changes to his team and still has longtime engineer Ray Gosselin on the pit box.

Gosselin noted that the chemistry with Hunter-Reay has continued to get better since they started working together in 2010.

“Obviously, you’re always working to try to understand each other and how people like to do things and when they like to do things,” Gosselin said. “That never goes away, that constantly evolves.

“Whenever you get new teammates in the team, they do something different and are you’re like, ‘Oh, we should be looking at what they are looking at.’ Between him and I, it’s always come easy in terms of how we want to approach things. There’s never been obstacles in the way.”

Rossi’s rookie season was highlighted by a win in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. A fifth-place finish in the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma locked up the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors and an 11th place in the standings.

The 25-year-old from Nevada City, California started his season on a solid foot by finishing 11th in St. Petersburg. Rossi echoed Hunter-Reay’s sentiments on the team’s progress and is pleased with the improvements made by manufacturer Honda.

“I think we’ve taken a step forward for sure,” Rossi said. “Honda has done an unbelievable job in the winter and really continuing development from being in 2016 when we started behind and ended slightly ahead. They didn’t rest on their laurels. Honda’s done an unbelievable job. We have to keep pushing. We know the other side isn’t going to stop.”

Rossi gained a new engineer this year in Jeremy Milless. Rossi feels that they are starting to hit their stride after taking a few test sessions and the St. Petersburg race weekend to get to know each other.

“I think a big turning point for us was post Barber (for an open test March 21),” he said. “We were still getting to know each other at the Phoenix test and St. Pete. (At) Barber, we clued in on some things where we were weak and I think we have improved on that a lot with some tests that have happened since then. We are much more comfortable out of the box here than St. Pete.”

Milless joined Andretti Autosport after working with Ed Carpenter Racing and Josef Newgarden. Milless agreed that the driver-engineer relationship gets better each time they work together.

“It’s just learning small things about each other,” he said. “We had a couple of tests where we didn’t put all of the goodness together and that’s what you need to do in the end. We eventually had a couple of tests in a row where we did that.”

A final warmup practice on the streets of Long Beach is scheduled for noon ET today (RaceControl.IndyCar.com). The 85-lap Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach airs live at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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