When young Zach Veach hit the track at Texas Motor Speedway for Saturday’s practice, it had been so long since the Andretti Autosport driver had been in his No. 26 Gainbridge Honda on an oval that he was shocked.
“It felt like you were looking at a different car,” Veach said. “On these speedways, you are going so fast, you have to look pretty far in front of the car to keep your mind in the right set.
“We’ve been sitting for three months, and now we are going 215 with 4 Gs. It was a shock to my body for the first few laps. I came in, took a breath and went out and didn’t have another problem after that.”
Once Veach regained his composure, he had one of the best days and nights of his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career. He was fast in practice, fifth quickest in qualifications and finished fourth in Saturday night’s Genesys 300 at TMS. He led two laps in a high-speed contest that had just three drivers lead the race, including race-winner Scott Dixon’s 157 laps led and third-place Josef Newgarden’s 41.
It was, without a doubt, the best race of Veach’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES career.
“Tonight, we executed, which was great,” Veach said. “This Gainbridge car felt great all night. I had the pace to stay in the top five and top six all night. Honestly, that’s a lot easier than trying to come from 16th. I’m going to try my hardest to make this a habit.
“It gets back to what we know we can do. We’ve always had the faith in ourselves and the belief. Last year, we were trying too hard, and a number of things didn’t go our way. This year, we went into it with the mindset of having fun and enjoying the process of going out there and making a quick race car.
“Once I stopped trying inside of the car, we started picking up speed. I’m just so thankful we were finally able to put it together.”
Veach begins his third full season at Andretti Autosport. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a delay of the start of the season for nearly three months.
The break provided Veach with time to clear his mind and refocus his energies as a driver.
“Last year, we were struggling to put things together in a positive way,” Veach said. “Ever since we made a change to make Mark Bryant as my engineer, we have a very similar outlook on how the weekend progresses. It’s been fun. I don’t even feel like we really tried hard this weekend. We showed up. The car was pretty good. We made it a bit better for practice and qualifying. In the race, we didn’t make any mistakes.
“I’m really happy about that.”
By simplifying his approach and focusing his attitude, combined with Bryant devising the right strategy for the car, Veach had one of the best rides at Texas Motor Speedway.
He also discovered it’s easier to run with the fast drivers by being one of fast guys and starting near the front. Because of the unusual one-day practice, qualify and race format, teams didn’t have time to over-think and over-engineer.
“The thing I loved so much about being a one-day show is instead of processing every decision and thinking it through multiple times, it was back to that gut feeling,” Veach said. “You would look at a change and you either felt good about it or bad about it, and you didn’t question that. Then you went on to the next part.
“If we had qualified fifth today and were racing tomorrow, right now we would be over-thinking how to make the car better. A lot of times, that makes the car worse.
“Put something together that works, then run it. That is what the one-day show forced everybody to do.”
Teams had to start the race with essentially the same setup they had used for qualifications. At Andretti Autosport, Veach’s crew made a slight compromise to have a car that was fast in qualifying but could also maintain that speed and handling in the race.
That setup worked very well for Veach as he could stay flat on the throttle through Turns 3 and 4.
“We had a car that repeated itself very well,” Ohio native Veach said. “I seemed to catch the Penskes off Turn 4, and that made it hard to get around them in Turn 1. But it made a pretty good defense mechanism. As soon as someone had a run on me out of Turn 2, I could gap them in Turns 3 and 4. I think a lot of our speed that allowed me to stay up there was how good the car was in 3 and 4.
“Doing 35 laps in 3 and 4 flat with no worries made my life easier.”
To have a breakout race at Texas seemed to be a perfect place for Veach. He admits he is an oval racer at heart and believes there is a satisfaction that comes with preparing a fast car at high speeds.
“It’s a lot of fun to build a better race car with your engineer,” Veach said. “That is what we did tonight.
“My pit crew was amazing tonight. When you enter pit lane behind Will Power and leave pit lane in front of him, you’ve had a pretty good pit stop. I feel really good about that.”
Because of the unusual situation with the unexpected shutdown, the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge will be after the Texas race instead of two weeks before. This year’s Indy 500 is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 23.
Gainbridge is the presenting sponsor of the biggest race in the world. Veach’s performance Saturday night at Texas creates momentum for both the team and the sponsor.
“It’s definitely something good to talk about,” Veach said. “Gainbridge bought some additional signage at Texas. Having an additional footprint here helps them. Leaving Texas is a good result because we have four weeks off.
“I would have hated to have a bad result and think about it for four weeks before racing again.”
Instead, Veach was all smiles when he left Texas Motor Speedway.