By PAUL NEWBERRY
INDIANAPOLIS — Marco Andretti poked across the finish line, his family curse firmly intact at the Brickyard.
Somehow, you just knew the Indianapolis 500 would end this way.
While it was hard to complain about Tony Kanaan ending his own Indy heartache with a hugely popular win on Sunday, you had to feel for the third-generation racer in the No. 25 car.
Andretti wanted a chance to be there at the end, and that’s just what he got when the green flag waved with three laps to go on a fall-like day filled with more back-and-forth racing than we’ve ever seen around this place.
The 26-year-old was running fourth and daringly swerved to the inside coming down the front straightaway, looking for a way to surge all the way to the front. It was a bold move. Too bold. The opening closed up quickly and Andretti wisely backed off, while Kanaan drove around Ryan Hunter-Reay for the lead. Rookie Carlos Munoz went on past, too, to take the second spot.
No problem. There were still about seven miles to go, still plenty of time for Andretti to make another move for the front.
Only this is Indy, where the “Andretti Curse” reigns supreme.
Marco never got another chance to challenge for the front. Back in the field, defending race winner Dario Franchitti slammed into the wall — effectively ending the race. Kanaan spent the final 2½ laps on a victory parade, the yellow flag waving and no one able to pass.
Andretti settled for fourth behind Kanaan, Munoz and Hunter-Reay.
It was another gut-wrenching blow for a guy who gave a glimpse of just what this place means to him when he tweeted the day before the race: “I have never wanted something so badly. … Let’s give it hell!”
Andretti sure drove that way. He led 15 times for a total of 31 laps, more than anyone except for pole-sitter Ed Carpenter (37) and Kanaan (34).
Watching from the pits, Mario Andretti really thought his grandson had what it took to end up in Victory Lane.
“Of course,” Mario said. “I mean, this is what we all strive for, and I know how badly he wants it as a driver. When you’re up front, you know you’re a legitimate contender. It’s just positioning, and I still thought we had a shot before the very last yellow because his car was fast enough that with any kind of break, he was a contender.”
Contending at Indy?
The Andrettis have that down pat.
Winning the race?
That’s an entirely different story.
On pit road afterward, Marco’s eyes were moist. He dabbed at his nose with a tissue. Sure, he’s now leading the IndyCar standings after five races, having finished no lower than seventh in any of them.
That’s not what drives him. Not at all.
He wants his face on that Borg-Warner Trophy.
“Consistency is great, but Indy is a championship in itself,” he said. “It’s good to be leading the overall points, but it came down to the last couple of laps shootout. I think if it would have stayed green, we would have been in a prime position. But it’s the way the cards fell today.”
Boy, does that sound familiar.
Mario won the 500 in 1969 and spent the rest of his long, brilliant career trying futilely to do it again. Even though he led a total of 556 laps over 29 starts — third-most behind four-time winner Al Unser and Ralph DePalma — Andretti never got another taste of milk. Sadly, the most common words at Indy turned out to be, “Mario is slowing down.”
Then along came son Michael, a championship driver in his own right. Except at Indy, where he led in nine races for a total of 431 laps without ever winning the 500. No driver has come close to setting the pace for so many laps without actually finishing ahead of everyone else. Sometimes, Michael was doomed by a mechanical failure beyond his control. Other times, he made an inexplicable mistake that cost him the race.
Even though Michael has won twice as a car owner — with Franchitti and the late Dan Wheldon — it’s clear the family won’t be redeemed until one of their own gets back to that place where Mario stood 44 long years ago.
Which brings us to Marco, who now carries that burden.
Given his youth, he’s got plenty of time to reach the goal that’s been there essentially since the day he was born. Much like his father and grandfather, he’s becoming quite an all-around driver, working hard during the offseason to improve his road racing skills, which is why he’s leading the standings after the first four races were held on road and street courses.
But with each excruciating Indy setback, you have to wonder if he’ll start believing his family is truly jinxed. You have to wonder if he’ll ever reach his full potential.
As a 19-year-old rookie in 2006, Marco was passed on the last straightaway by Sam Hornish Jr., losing by less than a half-second in the second-closest finish in Indy 500 history. The next year, the youngster was knocked out by a collision while contending for the lead late in the race. In 2008, he led 35 laps on the way to a third-place showing, and there was another third-place finish in 2010.
Last year, Marco led a race-high 59 laps before striking the wall with 13 laps to go.
Now, another close call.
I mean, seriously, how does this keep happening to one family?
The odds, it would seem, are totally irrelevant. In those closing laps Sunday, Andretti Autosport — Michael’s team — had three guys contending for the victory: Marco, Munoz and Hunter-Reay. Even if his son didn’t win it, Michael thought one of his other cars would surely bring it home.
“Unfortunately,” Michael Andretti said, “the racing gods took control of it and didn’t allow that to happen. It would have been quite interesting, to be honest with you.”
Through the pain, Marco tried to be magnanimous in defeat. He noted that Kanaan, his former teammate and a dozen years his senior, was a deserving winner after finishing second in 2004, third two other times, and coming into this year’s race having led 221 laps without winning — more than anyone except Michael Andretti and Rex Mays.
“He’s been knocking on the door a little bit longer than me,” Marco said. “Good for him.”
One curse lifted.
Another lives on.
For the Andretti family, it’s the same ol’ story.
Wait ‘til next year.