- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Like a cowboy stepping out of the shadows and into the sunshine, John Andretti finds himself back in the saddle again.
"We're back, tested and ready to race," Andretti confidently says as he and the Dale Earnhardt Inc.-owned No. 1 Chevrolet prepare for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"We've done a lot of talking and figuring and working the past several weeks, pointed towards coming to the Coca-Cola 600," Andretti said. "That's pretty important for me. I've had a good relationship with the folks at Coca-Cola for a long time, and I really wanted to run their race."
Andretti will be making only his third start of the season -- and the first since the second race of the year, at Rockingham, N.C., in late February -- in the 600, the annual longest event on the Nextel Cup schedule. Not only is the 600 the most demanding of the year in terms of overall length and endurance needed, it's typically a four-hour-plus event where track conditions change from hour to hour.
The race starts in the late afternoon, proceeds through dusk, enters nighttime under the lights and finishes up somewhere between 9:30 and 10 p.m. ET, when the typical high heat and humidity of the day often give way to conditions that can be as much as 30 degrees lower by the time the checkered flag waves.
"If nothing else, we're prepared for this weekend," Andretti said. "Not having the chance to race the past several weeks will get your mind working in that direction but the time we've been able to put on the racetrack last week, and the time we've spent in the shop the past several weeks, has us really ready to go."
Not only does Andretti have DEI's technical and financial support behind him, he could very well be the biggest dark horse favorite as well. The reason: he'll have Martin Truex Jr.'s crack Chance 2 team in the pits. That same team has wrenched and strategized Truex to the top of the Busch ranks with four wins, two other top-five and two additional top-10 finishes in 12 starts, tops among all Busch Series drivers and also has Truex atop the Busch standings.
"We have an excellent pit crew in the Chance 2 guys," Andretti said. "That's usually one of the things a part-time deal would struggle with but we'll be as good as anybody else in the pits. We want to come out at the Coke 600 this week and have a great run, and build some momentum that we can carry into some other races this year as well."
The Coca-Cola 600 has a special place in Andretti's heart. In 1994, he became the first driver in NASCAR and open-wheel history to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. He finished 10th at Indy and 36th at Charlotte.
He had hoped to pull off the noted "double-double" again this year, but as he explained, he basically ran out of time. Still, he is psyched for trying the 1,100-mile doubleheader next year.
"I was hoping to be able to put together something so we could do the Charlotte-Indy double again," he said. "It really looked like one or two deals for Indy might come together but they just didn't get done in time. We got really close but not quite there. I wanted to be in a competitive ride if we were going to do it, and that part was pretty well covered too. If they had moved Indy to the first half of June for this year, we might have made it. Still, I haven't given up on that for 2005 and on beyond that."
Things looked pretty dismal for Andretti earlier this year after he was, in effect, laid-off from DEI after attempts fell through to find primary sponsorship to allow the No. 1 Chevy to mount a full season.
But company officials never gave up trying to find funding for Andretti, and Charlotte will be the first of several upcoming venues he'll compete at between now and the rest of the season in hopes of building a full-time effort in 2005.
"This is just the beginning as far as the DEI No. 1 car is concerned," Andretti said. "We have some more races coming up that we are going to do, but the Coke 600 is a great starting point for us. Our goals are the same as any other weekend. We're pretty well prepared.
"(Truex's crew chief) Tony Gibson has been going to the track a lot with the 15 (Michael Waltrip) and the 8 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), so he is up on things. I've been going to the track and hanging out a day or so, talking to a lot of people so I have an idea of what's going on. And I spend a lot of time in the shop. So we're not out of touch, we're just not actively doing it each weekend."
Andretti has recently spent considerable time testing the No. 1 car, getting both himself and his ride up to speed. Now it's up to him and his trusty steed to play cowboy again and ride into the thick of Nextel Cup competition.
"We tested two days at Charlotte last week, and then had a really good one-day test at Kentucky," Andretti said. "This was the first time I had been able to test with the No. 1 team, but things went really well. I had tested with the Chance 2 team at Indy last year but they were out of tests other than that.
"It was good to actually get to test and try some of the development things DEI is working on. Martin (Truex) drove the 8 car at Kentucky and they tested with us, both of us trying different things. I felt like we were able to try enough things that we can add to what DEI is trying to do, especially on the mile-and-a-half tracks, plus we get the benefit of a race organization that is obviously running very well.
"When we went testing, it was sort of like our season was finally starting. That was good. It got everybody's blood boiling again. We're coming out with our guns loaded and we feel really good about things. We're going to do the best we can to get a great finish, and this team is capable of doing that."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.