Commentary

Andretti finds late speed to make 500

Updated: May 17, 2009, 10:30 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Add this to the list of great Andretti dramas at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

John Andretti won't be on anyone's list to contend in the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500, but the oldest driver in the field won his race Sunday on Bump Day. With a nerve-racking final run at 5:52 p.m. ET, the 46-year-old veteran drew applause from the grandstands all the way to Level Cross, N.C., by putting the No. 43 Window World Special into the field of 33, more specifically the 28th starting position.

That's the No. 43, as in the legendary Richard Petty, a partner in the Dreyer & Reinbold owned and operated Dallara-Honda. The King visited Indianapolis last weekend, saying, "We finally, finally got to come to the biggest race there is," but it took until the last day -- make that the last few minutes -- for his car to officially make the show.

"This is the race that we had to win," Andretti said. "Maybe not as big as what Helio [Castroneves] did [in winning the pole], but to us it's bigger. I can't imagine how embarrassed I would have been if Richard Petty gave me a call and said, 'I'm coming on race day, where do you start?' 'I don't.' It's been a very, very tough day."

Andretti was bounced in and out of the field like a yo-yo on a cool, calm day that had speed written all over it. Though the No. 43 made the field in third-day qualifying on Saturday, its 31st position and 219.442 mph average speed was in danger from the get-go.

The very first qualifier Sunday, Nelson Philippe, withdrew his 33rd-place qualifying speed of 218.032 mph from the day before, knowing he had to post something better. He did, at 220.754, and a wild day was under way.

Andretti was bumped for the first time an hour into the session when Bruno Junqueira, running for the first time all month in the No. 36 Conquest Racing car, hung up a 221.115 mph effort. Andretti briefly re-entered the field when Ryan Hunter-Reay withdrew his Saturday time to re-run, and when he turned a 220.413 mph four-lap average, Andretti was out again.

A similar sequence replayed when Mike Conway, a D&R teammate, withdrew a time then put up a faster one. Andretti finally made a first qualifying run at 3:53 p.m., but waved it off after a slow opening lap of 218.897.

Andretti bounded in and out of the field again as E.J. Viso and Tomas Scheckter withdrew and then requalified. It was then 5:36 p.m. in a day with a 6 p.m. deadline.

"I was in the race, then I wasn't in the race," Andretti said, though noting he was actually in the race the previous weekend, only to be bumped by Scott Sharp in Indy's 11-11-11 qualifying format. (Later that day, while practicing, Andretti crashed in Turn 1, but the team had the car fixed in time for second-week sessions.)

Regardless, it all came down to the final 20 minutes and it didn't look good. Andretti's second attempt fell short at 220.282 mph, and it was back to the pits for rapid-fire adjustments.

"All I could watch was him knocking back his rear wing all day and I was like gosh, 'I gotta do this again,'" said Hunter-Reay, who pitted next to Andretti and had a last-gasp successful qualifying day of his own.

After former champion Buddy Lazier and Stanton Barrett waved off attempts and their chances at the 500, Andretti hit the 2.5-mile oval one more time for the do-or-die run.

The applause from the infield grandstand told the developing story: four laps at over 221 mph, more than enough to put Andretti into his ninth Indy 500.

"It makes the other ones seem like I wasn't here," Andretti said. "What a hard road, I'm exhausted. I can't take any more of this. Coming down pit road you'd have thought I won the race, and in a way we did.

[+] EnlargeJohn Andretti
AP Photo/Darron CummingsWhat? John Andretti worry?

"We never take it easy and never think that it's going to be easy, but we never thought it would be this hard."

Petty wasn't on site Sunday, but car owner Dennis Reinbold was and ultimately did plenty of sweating between Conway (who qualified 27th as a rookie), Milka Duno (31st) and Andretti.

After his highest-profile team made the show, he needed a few minutes on the pit wall and then his bus to compose and recover from high tension at Indy.

"The whole thing, it's the Indy 500, it's the biggest race in the world, it comes with a huge price tag, it comes with a large degree of pressure and workload," Reinbold said. "You think about all the work that all our people put in the thing to get us to that moment, and it becomes a little overwhelming.

"John really rose up, put a great run in and had quite a bit of cushion involved. Then it was OK to just be happy."

And exhale, even for a driver who has experienced plenty in a three-decade motorsports career and seen countless highs and lows from uncle Mario, cousins Michael and Mario and father Aldo, who recently spent 22 nights in the hospital recovering from surgery.

"The old man had to fight the hardest, that's not the way it's supposed to be," Andretti said. "I'm supposed to be the guy that has the easiest way in. I'm physically, mentally, totally exhausted."

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.