Andretti sets pace on first full day of practice with blistering 226 mph run

Updated: May 6, 2008

Joe Robbins/US Presswire

Marco Andretti came in looking cool but then set down the hottest lap on the first full day of Indy 500 practice, with an average speed of 226.599 mph.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Last we saw Marco Andretti at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he was flying through the backstretch upside down in a spectacular crash at the end of the rain-shortened 2007 Indianapolis 500.

Once he realized he was unhurt, he wanted to redeem himself right away. Of course he had to wait a year to return to the Brickyard, but Tuesday he began the redemption process pretty well. Andretti's draft-aided lap of 226.599 mph was by far the best on a very busy first full day of practice for the 92nd Indy 500 (ABC, May 25 at noon ET).

"We'll take it. It was a very big tow [behind Graham Rahal's car], but you need the mechanical balance to be able to stay flat [on the throttle] to get the time, so I'm very pleased with the guys so far this year," said the Andretti Green Racing driver. "It's a good start, but this place changes."

He knows that as well as anyone. Last year his day ended in a crash and his 2006 rookie race ended with a different kind of agony, being passed by Team Penske's Sam Hornish Jr. on the last straight of the last lap.

The crash, he could forget. The runner-up finish sticks with him.

"For a 19-year-old rookie it was great, but any other [time] you're second place, on the podium, you've got points, it's a great weekend -- but not leading out of Turn 4 of the Indy 500," Andretti said.

This season he arrived in town with a better start to the season under his belt, seventh in points with a fifth-place finish at Kansas on April 27 and a second in the season-opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A year ago he came to Indy in an oval-track funk, having bowed out of those races early with what he called dangerous cars.

Returning to the 2.5-mile oval at Indy, whether it's the family genes or something else, has always suited him. No better evidence than Tuesday, when his Dallara-Honda's tow-assisted lap bettered his Andretti Green teammate Tony Kanaan (225.269 mph) by over one full mile per hour.

"We definitely know how to get around this place," said the now 21-year-old. "Patience is the key word around here, you have to get to the end to be able to get yourself into a position to even have a go at it. It's a long race, but it's a long month, too."

The long month of May began with its busiest opening day in nine years. After two days of rookie orientation, 31 drivers in 33 cars (Helio Castroneves and Vitor Meira drove backups in addition to primary cars) completed 1,385 incident-free laps of work, creating traffic not seen since 1999 when 33 drivers in 38 cars practiced. Last year, 25 drivers in 27 cars turned laps on opening day.

Quick reflexes by Rahal

Tuesday's practice wouldn't have been accident-free had Newman/Haas/Lanigan's Graham Rahal not saved his Dallara-Honda in the south short chute midway through practice. He had a significant bobble before gathering it in.

"I think I had the save of the month," said Rahal, son of 1986 500 winner Bobby Rahal and a rookie at Indy. "I came out of Turn 1 and the car had understeered there every single lap except for this one and the thing snapped on me. It was close. I had a full lock on [the steering wheel] and it just came back to me."

Rahal, a winner last month at St. Petersburg, Fla., was 19th on the speed charts at 222.552 mph.

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

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Patrick ninth on opening day charts

Danica Patrick

Patrick

Andretti's teammate, Danica Patrick, arrived at Indianapolis for her fourth month of May with a different level of attention, having erased the "first win" questions with her triumph at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan.

Now people will want to know if she can turn that into a win in the biggest race of the IndyCar Series season, where she has already had some success. Patrick has not finished worse than eighth in three starts, including her transcendent fourth in 2005.

Her work toward her fourth 500 began Tuesday with a fast lap of 224.095 mph, turned in just before the track closed at 6 p.m. local time. It put her ninth on the speed charts, just behind her former Rahal Letterman Racing teammate Buddy Rice (224.170 mph).

"We had a decent day, we got out at the end with a couple minutes to go and turned our fastest lap on our own," said Patrick, fifth in series points. "We've got a little bit of work to do, of course -- it's Tuesday, of the first day of the whole entire month. I don't want to read too much into it."

Nonetheless, she said she's completely focused on Saturday's Pole Day (ABC, 3 p.m. ET) and turning in a pole-winning effort.

"I think there's going to be a lot of thinking like that," she said. "We came out [earlier in the day], I think for a while we were one of the quickest cars on the track. Then we went out [later] and the balance was all off. The car was very difficult to drive, so thanks to Marco's good work we stole a few ideas from him and went back out there at the very end and found a car that was much closer to where it needed to be.

"It still wasn't perfect and it still had some of the tendencies it had earlier, but closer. This place, you don't totally stumble onto things, but you can find things that unlock some speed here. A pole run is not out of the question at all."

Camara cleared for return

Rookie Jaime Camara of Conquest Racing had the first accident of the month Monday, driving too low into Turn 1 and losing control into the outside wall.

Camara, a winner at Indy in 2005 in Firestone Indy Lights, complained of back pain and was taken to Indianapolis' Methodist Hospital, where X-rays were negative. He was re-evaluated at the track's infield care center Tuesday afternoon and cleared to return Wednesday if his car is repaired.

Clinton visits speedway

As if there's not enough politics in the garage already, Sarah Fisher's corner of Gasoline Alley had a visitor Tuesday morning: Sen. Hillary Clinton.

On the day of Indiana's primary election she visited the Speedway, first shaking hands with Mario Dominguez (who waited patiently in his firesuit alongside media and bystanders) and then meeting the Sarah Fisher Racing team and asking the six-time 500 starter a few racing questions in front of the national press corps. Fisher endorsed Clinton on Sunday.

Clinton held Fisher's detached steering wheel, inquiring about paddle shifting and the Dallara's aerodynamics. She gave Fisher a high-five when hearing that the IndyCar Series runs completely on fuel-grade ethanol.

Clinton asked Fisher how fast the IndyCars can run and gave an incredulous look when hearing it was nearly 230 mph. "That's like going into space," Clinton said.

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