While a 16th place finish isn’t much to write home about, there were many reasons for Zach Veach to stay upbeat following Saturday’s DXC Technology 600.
Entering the race weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Veach had made 10 starts in a Verizon IndyCar Series career that remains in its infancy. A 4th place finish at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach has buoyed his season thus far, but a pair of finishes inside the top-13 at Detroit marked improvement from the 23-year-old.
Of course everyone’s fill-in for “rookie” of the year has been Robert Wickens, and rightfully so, but Veach has done well to lead the rest of the class that includes the exciting Brazilian talent Matheus Leist, the fiery Zachary Claman de Melo, Jordan King, Kyle Kaiser and a host of others.
Earlier in the season Veach picked up a 16th place result at ISM Raceway before finishing 23rd at this year’s Indianapolis 500. More importantly, the Ohio native has brought the car home in one piece after each race while completing 98.8% of the total laps possible during this year’s championship.
Saturday night, Veach started 16th in a respectable qualifying effort that placed him ahead of rookies Leist (19th) and Claman de Melo (21st) as well as 2016 Texas race winner Graham Rahal.
During the race’s first stint, Veach was slicing through the field with a vigor we had yet to see to this point in his IndyCar career. The rookie made up over ten spots on the field over the course of the opening fuel run and wasn’t bashful about the car he had under him.
“Things started off really well,” said Veach. “We drove from 16th to third on the first stint, which just showed what kind of car we had. It was the best car I’ve had in my career, the best car I’ve had in (the Verizon IndyCar Series), so hats off to my engineer and the entire Relay / Group 1001 team.”
About mid-way though the second fuel stint, admittedly Veach said his inexperience got the best of him as a moment of lost focus ended up with a slight brush with the wall. The contact bent Veach’s right rear toe-link and would signal a difficult night ahead.
“The rookie side of me came in during the second stint,” Veach said in jest. “I just got too high running through Turn 2 trying to get air. I got the right rear into the wall and bent a toe-link and went 10 laps down. From that point on, we were just fighting as hard as we could.”
Considering the damage he dealt with for much of the night, Veach would soldier on and be the only rookie standing by the end of the race.
Matheus Leist left his A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet in Turn 3 when it caught fire on lap 5. Schmidt Peterson Motorsport’s Robert Wickens was having a solid run inside the top-10 before an accident with Ed Carpenter wiped both cars out on lap 171.
Finally, Zachary Claman de Melo was making headway during the final fuel window before he made a move on the outside of Will Power. Chatter over the radio kept Power from hearing his spotter during the crucial moment, and the defending Indianapolis 500 winner moved up across the rookie on the exit of Turn 4.
Both Power and Claman de Melo’s nights would end prematurely while Veach continued.
When it was all said and done, Veach had finished where he started – though that doesn’t tell the story of progress.
“I honestly think we had a car for the top five, possibly the top three,” the Honda driver said. “We passed everyone up to (Scott) Dixon, basically – even though we were laps down. That just shows the strength we had. My crew gave me something special and I just didn’t get the job done with it. But, you know, that’s learning. I’m excited to go on to Road America, and then get back on the ovals at Iowa.
“For me, tonight it felt like a switch finally flipped. I felt like I can run with these guys and push them into the corners and not be afraid to take the way they drive on track. I put myself forward and stood up for myself, and that’s a big key in INDYCAR. I finally feel confident enough to do that.”
Isn’t all that you can search for as a rookie? To discover that niche where you can be comfortable as a driver? Only after that point can one really begin to glean the results from their talent.
Some drivers get to that point sooner than others, but if Veach is finding his groove now in the first year of a three-year contract with Andretti Autosport then things are setting up well for the American prospect.
Keep an eye on Veach next weekend at Road America, where he won in Indy Lights in 2016, and for the rest of this season. Surely there will be a couple more bumps in the road for the rookie but hopefully there are more positives around the corner for the kid from Stockdale.
Image courtesy of Christopher Owens/INDYCAR Media.