- John Schwarb
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LEXINGTON, Ohio -- Andretti Green Racing's four entries puffed out their chests Saturday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Sunday, they took everyone's breath away.
The four-car team experienced the whirlwind of emotions in a 24-hour period, showing off road-course prowess in qualifying only to have its chances to show it in the race mostly evaporate in a first-turn incident that was the signature moment of the Honda Indy 200.
Marco Andretti flipped for the second time this season (the other being down the backstretch at Indianapolis) when three AGR cars got together just after the green flag. Danica Patrick started it by getting loose and making contact with Tony Kanaan, sending her off through the grass in Turn 4 (Mid-Ohio's configuration starts the race at Turn 3). Kanaan, hitting the brakes, went into a spin and touched wheels with Andretti, sending him flying and landing on his roll bar.
"There was nothing I could do, Danica appeared to be sliding. She had a loose moment in front of me. I hit the brakes to avoid her and spun. Unfortunately, I took Marco out in the process," Kanaan said. "I felt so bad for Marco because he had nothing to do with it. Actually, Marco turned me back straight and then he rolled over. I feel bad about it, and unfortunately, it happened between us."
Teammate Dario Franchitti, the only AGR entry to avoid the mess, summed it up more succinctly: "As a team, it wasn't our best moment, put it that way."
Especially not after Saturday's qualifying, which led one to picture all sorts of good scenarios for AGR. In single-lap qualifying, Andretti was on top of the chart. He dropped to fourth after the 10-minute Firestone Fast Six, but the team rode high in putting all of its cars into the extra session, the first time in the short history of the format that one team put four into the show.
Patrick emerged as the top story, running the second-fastest lap of the session behind Team Penske's Helio Castroneves to land on the front row for the first time on a road course. Such tracks had never been her strength to date in the IndyCar Series, but qualifying got the chatter going again about whether the Honda Indy 200 could be her first win and the first win by a woman in major open-wheel racing.
"This is by far the best I've done on a road course," she said Saturday. "Watkins Glen I left pit lane just absolutely disheartened and embarrassed with how badly I was doing (she finished 11th), so this is a big turnaround for us. It feels good to have the Motorola car on the front row, not on an oval, but on a road course."
The big crowds at Mid-Ohio didn't get to see Patrick get to make a race out of her best starting point of the season. Perhaps it was unlucky for AGR to qualify so well as a group, having Patrick, Kanaan and Andretti sitting second, third and fourth on the grid and failing to maneuver around each other in the race's tight first turn. At least to Kanaan and Patrick's credit, they hung in through the 85-lap event and recovered to take fourth and fifth, respectively. But it wasn't what they came for.
The same could be said for Franchitti in a second-place performance, given that he led the race with nine laps remaining.
He steadily put distance between himself and second-place Scott Dixon during a six-lap run up front late, and the gap was 16 seconds when he pitted. But even with a quick splash of fuel, the Indianapolis 500 champ emerged from the pits behind Dixon by some 2.5 seconds.
We need perfection. I'm being critical of myself and my guys, but we need that perfection in order to win the championship.
"I think it was a good stop. Got on the marks pretty damn quickly, got in pit lane, got out of pit lane, Scott was [nearly] three seconds up the road," Franchitti said. "I'd love to analyze it and find out where the time was lost."
Franchitti couldn't make up that kind of time in nine laps to Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Dixon, a driver with equally good road-racing chops, and settled for second for the second consecutive week. Runner-up days at Mid-Ohio and Nashville and a third at Watkins Glen are hardly three poor efforts, but his championship lead dropped from 65 to 24 points over that span with Dixon winning all three.
"The problem we've got right now is we're looking for perfection," said Franchitti, who had it a month ago with back-to-back wins at Iowa and Richmond. "The guys in the 9 car, with Dixon's car, Scott himself, are doing a hell of a job. We need perfection. I'm being critical of myself and my guys, but we need that perfection in order to win the championship."
Everyone in the AGR garage needed something different than what they left with Sunday at Mid-Ohio.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday couldn't have gone much better for the four drivers of Andretti Green Racing. The first turn in Sunday's race couldn't have gone much worse, writes John Schwarb.