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Andretti aims to revive family name at Indy

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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INDIANAPOLIS

Marco Andretti has dealt with the naysayers all of his life.

WHO'S NO. 1?

See the 2011 IndyCar standings here.

As a third-generation IndyCar racer and the son and grandson of former champions, many simply dismiss Andretti as just another racing legacy.

Pundits on the open wheel tour question whether the 24-year-old would have a ride at all if he wasn’t employed by his father Michael’s Andretti Autosport.

But last Sunday, Andretti stepped up when it counted. After a miserable May when all five of the Andretti Autosport cars struggled to find speed, Marco had one last shot in Bump Day to secure a starting spot in the 100th-anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500.

Time trials had not gone well for Andretti. He had not locked down one of the top 24 starting positions for the race. After Pole Day, Andretti reiterated that his car was slow off the truck and the team had “not made any improvements.” While battling sheer frustration and raw nerves, Andretti acknowledged that last weekend was the longest of his life.

With rain delaying the final six-hour qualifying session throughout the afternoon, strategy was difficult. Andretti could not break the 224-mph mark on his first attempt. His average speed of 223.668 mph, however, put his teammate Mike Conway, who won this year’s Long Beach race, on the bubble. Paul Tracy, who went out immediately after Andretti, knocked Conway from the field. Danica Patrick's qualifying attempt put Andretti on the bubble.

“When I rolled off my first run of the month, I knew this car wouldn’t have the speed,” Andretti said. “That’s why I didn’t work one second on this race car. I knew it was going to take every little bit. I looked at the strength of the series. I looked at the competition, the drivers, the teams. I knew it was going to take every little bit out of the car to put me in the show. And I knew that right away. Basically, I was in the mindset and ready to fight.

At the 5:51 p.m. mark, Alex Lloyd bumped Andretti and placed Andretti Autosports Ryan Hunter-Reay on the bubble. James Jakes ran just two laps and did not bother with the final two. And with just a minute remaining on the clock, Andretti took to the track.

“We found that little bit of speed, but we didn’t find that big jump that allowed me to relax,” he said. “Before I did that run, I knew whatever was going to happen was going to happen. At that point, we went for it. We were really aggressive with the setup on the last run. I guarantee we were more aggressive than the majority of the field. I had to do whatever it took, and I knew I was either going to back the thing into the wall or put it in the field.”

indy 500 starting grid

Starting grid

Check out the lineup for this year's Indy 500.

On Andretti’s second lap, the gun fired signifying the end of time trials. Since the No. 26 car was already on the track, Andretti was able to compete his lap and posted an average speed of 224.648. Sunday he will roll off 27th for his sixth Indianapolis 500.

“On Sunday for our team, it didn’t look good,” Andretti said. “I’m looking a lot better than I did Sunday at 5:59. I always said that if I can field the car, I can win it. It’s 500 miles. A lot can happen. We started 16th last year with a legit chance to win it. I think we have to be sensible moving up, don’t take any unnecessary risks. It’s easier now to say it, but a lot happens in 500 miles.

“We’ve run strong here on our own merit. If anything, I think we’ve had bad luck here.”

The Andretti family history at IMS is checkered at best. Grandfather Mario made 29 attempts in the 500, led 557 of 3,040 laps but won just the 1969 race. Michael, Marco’s father and team owner, ranks 10th among the drivers who led the most laps (431) in the 500 but never led the last one.

When Marco made his Indy debut in 2006 at 19, Michael came out of retirement to run his 16th and final race. Father and son were running first and second with four laps remaining in the race when Marco took the lead. He appeared to be a lock to win the 500 in his rookie start, but the Andretti curse took over as Sam Hornish Jr. blew by the No. 26 on the front stretch, heading for the checkered flag in the second-closest margin of victory in the history of the 500. Andretti finished second; his father finished third.

In Andretti’s four subsequent starts, he’s finished third or not at all — further perpetuating the notion of the Andretti Indy curse.

Danica Patrick understands the level of pressure drivers are under to perform. And she’s aware of the additional burden Andretti carries in the IndyCar world. It’s a similar weight to what she’s witnessed with her teammate/owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the NASCAR side of motorsports.

Both are third-generation racers looking to chart paths where their fathers and grandfathers have excelled before them.

“I know what kind of pressure I feel from my perspective,” Patrick said. “I don’t know what Marco feels. I don’t know what Dale Jr. feels, necessarily. But from an outsider looking in, there would already be a very large amount of expectation before you do anything, and that’s tough.

“I feel the amount of pressure I have is from what I’ve done, and they have people they maybe feel they have to live up to. Maybe they don’t want to.

Maybe they want to be totally different because it makes them their own person. But they already have some level and some type of expectation put on them from the get-go, and that’s a tough position to be in. I do feel for those that come after famous fathers.”

Children of celebrities are often held to a different standard, but Patrick acknowledges there are benefits to being a legacy or a minority as well.

“There’s the other part, where I look at it from a girl perspective, let’s say, where I get opportunities because I’m a girl,” Patrick said. “I understand that. I understand that I get attention for that and that helps to get sponsors and whatever else. I understand that there’s kind of a way in through that just like perhaps from being the son of a famous driver, there’s a way in. There’s good sides to it, too.

“I choose to look at my position as being someone, something different or somebody that has expectations for other reasons. I try to look at the positive and not think of the negative because it doesn’t get you anywhere.”

INDY, INDEED

Get more of SPEED'S IndyCar coverage here.

Patrick agrees that performance goes a long way toward silencing the critics.

“Absolutely, it’s the most important thing as a driver,” Patrick said.

Andretti is 13th in the IndyCar point standings. He’s finished a career-best seventh in the points twice — including his rookie year when he earned his first and only win at Infineon Raceway, 73 races ago.

Despite a lack of speed at Indy this month, Andretti’s optimistic about the race. He’s quick to remind that his top speed prior to the 500 in 2010 was 222 mph and he finished third. Certainly, a win Sunday could be a life changer for the racer. Plus, he could end the Andretti curse.

“Man, I live my life around this place,” Andretti said. “This place means the world to me. I just can’t put it into words what I'd be feeling. Icing on the cake. I’d put all the doubters to rest. Maybe shut them up a little bit. I see it all the time. I don’t feel it, but the perception, I can understand why people look at me like that. But man, being completely honest, my dad would overcompensate the other way just to make sure it didn’t look like that. And hey, I’m three of the five (Andretti Autosport drivers) that made the race, so I earned it.

“I’m looking at the 26 car, and we’re ready to win this race. I’m also looking at trying to get everybody back on — get our mojo back, so to speak. This team is way better than we showed on Sunday. The circumstances caught us out. I was gutted for my dad, and I was gutted for both teammates. We were put in a tough situation. I’ll tell you with a win, people will forget about qualifying real quick.”

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