IZOD IndyCar Series driver Marco Andretti found himself getting dominated by high school tennis players on Monday in Dallas, but come Sunday in Indianapolis he could be doing the same to 32 adults in his chosen sport.
Andretti, in town to promote the upcoming June 8 Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway, is a novice tennis player so part of his visit included a stop at Dallas’ Highland Park High School to play tennis against the Class 4A juggernaut and reigning state champion boys and girls players. While the 26-year-old Andretti admittedly “was getting my butted kicked” by the Scots, he needs to be excused if his focus and mindset was drifting toward doing the same to his racing colleagues in Sunday’s 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Andretti, preparing for his eighth career start in the Indy 500, will be making his first-ever start on the front row as he qualified third for the race. But the starting position is not his reason for the most optimism he has had entering the series’ marquee event.
“Personally, I think we’re stronger in race trim than qualifying,” said Andretti, whose previous-best start was fourth last year. “We’ve been quick every day; we’ve been in the top three almost every practice. Having the speed obviously helps, but you need a good, balanced race car for 500 miles and I think we have that. We’ve been really focusing on that more than qualifying.”
Andretti, whose best finish in the Indy 500 was second during his 2006 rookie campaign, is pursuing just his family’s second victory in this race. The lone win came in 1969 courtesy of his grandfather – the legendary Mario Andretti – and Marco is looking to end a four-decade drought for the third-generation racing family that also includes his father, Michael.
“I think this is going to be one of my best shots at it,” Marco said. “It’s my eighth go at it and we’ve had a chance to win this race numerous times. I never in all those years felt what I feel in this year’s race car so far. I think we improved last year’s car 10 fold. Last year’s car wasn’t great and we led the most laps so we just need to lead the right lap. I don’t care if I lead a half a turn; I just want to lead that lap.
“My family and I live our lives around the sport and that race in particular. I’d feel more complete (to win) for sure. It’s been twenty years since an Andretti has been on the front row, so I guess that’s a good start. Five hundred miles is a long way, there are going to be a lot of elements that could take us out of it, but I think if we execute we win because I think it’s our race to lose.”
Team owner Michael Andretti has an excellent shot of putting Marco or one of his four other drivers in Victory Circle and sipping the milk. Andretti Autosport, powered by Chevrolet engines, was the class of the field in qualifying with all five starting among the top nine in the 33-car field. Joining polesitter Ed Carpenter on the front row will be Andretti Autosport rookie Carlos Munoz starting second and Andretti third. Andretti Autosport’s E.J. Viso will start fourth, reigning series champ Ryan Hunter-Reay seventh and James Hinchcliffe ninth.
“I think as for Chevy, we’re happy to represent the bowtie this year especially because Chevys dominate the top 10 right now,” said Andretti, who along with his teammates ran the Honda power plants in 2012. “If that’s not a statement, I don’t know what is.”
Andretti also will be riding the momentum of the best start of his eight-year IZOD IndyCar Series career. After four races into the season, he is second in the series championship, just 13 points back of leader Takuma Sato entering the Indianapolis 500. Andretti has finished in the top 10 in all four races, including twice on the podium with third-place performances at St. Petersburg (Fla.) and Sao Paulo (Brazil).