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Andretti Still in Driver's Seat

Michael didn't win at Indy, but Andretti team holds down the top two spots in the season standings.

June 06, 2004|From Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Since Michael Andretti will have to wait another year to renew his quest for that elusive Indy 500 victory, the team owner can turn his attention to winning his first IRL championship.

Andretti Green Racing is in the driver's seat for the title, holding down the top two spots in the season standings after Sunday's 2-3-4 finish at Indy.

Dan Wheldon, who finished third in the 500, leads with 158 points. Tony Kanaan, the runner-up at Indy, trails his teammate by one point. Bryan Herta moved up to seventh with 91 points after a fourth-place showing at the Brickyard.

The other Andretti driver, Dario Franchitti, is 14th in the points heading to the next Indy Racing League event, June 12 at Texas Motor Speedway.

"I think we have a good balance," Wheldon said. "I am certainly having the time of my life with these guys. As much as I hate to admit it in front of them, I love being around them."

Andretti won the CART series championship in 1991 but switched to the IRL for 2003 when it became apparent that the older series was headed for financial ruin. He retired as a driver after last year's Indy 500, failing to win the sport's biggest race despite leading 426 laps in his career -- more than any other non-winner.

As a full-time car owner, Andretti also came up just short of his first IRL championship. Kanaan went to the 2003 finale at Texas with a shot at the title, but a brush with Helio Castroneves late in the race ruined those hopes.

Kanaan settled for fourth in the standings, while Wheldon -- who took Andretti's place behind the wheel -- won rookie of the year. Franchitti missed most of the season after injuring his back in a motorcycle crash; Herta took that spot and revived his career, winning at Kansas and prompting Andretti to add a fourth car to the team's lineup for 2004.

"Michael and the whole team saw the strength they could have in four guys," Kanaan said. "Some people thought they were crazy. They expect us to fail a lot more than actually succeed. We proved they were wrong."

Kanaan won the second race of the year at Phoenix, while Wheldon made it two in a row for the team with the first IRL win of his career at Japan.

Andretti Green Racing had another strong showing at Indy. Wheldon and Franchitti started on the front row, while Kanaan had a spot right behind them. All four of the Andretti drivers led at least one lap, and Franchitti might have made it a 2-3-4-5 finish if not for a punctured tire that bumped him back to 14th.

But no one was as fast as Buddy Rice, who started from the pole, led the most laps and crossed the strip of bricks first when rain washed out the final 20 laps.

"The guys did a great job," Andretti said. "We just didn't give them a strong enough car."

The team has strength in numbers, sending out the only four-car lineup in the IRL. But the season is only four races old, with 12 more events to go and plenty of strong contenders for the championship.

There's Team Penske, which has Castroneves and two-time series champion Sam Hornish. Rice is third in the standings (129 points) for Rahal Letterman Racing and brimming with confidence after winning at Indy. Defending IRL champ Scott Dixon is off to another good start with Chip Ganassi Racing, holding down fifth place in the points.

While disappointed again at Indy, Andretti knows there's plenty of time to address that void in his career.

He's only 41, thoroughly enjoys his new role as a car owner and already has helped build one of the strongest teams in the IRL.

"Oh, I think we'll win here," Andretti said. "We've just got to do a little bit better job, but I definitely think we'll win here one of these days."

If nothing else, he's clearly done a good job of building team camaraderie. The Andretti Green drivers are some of the most fun-loving on the circuit, pestering each other incessantly with pies in the face and other practical jokes.

While those sort of antics seem at odds with Andretti's low-key personality, his drivers insist that he's right in the middle of the things.

"I think public and private Mike are two very different people," Herta said. "The guy that we get to know, trust me, he has no problem taking his lumps or dishing them out. It's really like five of us, not just four of us. Mike is right in there."

On a more serious note, it's time to go win a championship.

Indy can wait.

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