A Star is born

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Mario Andretti and son Michael already knew what everyone else saw in the Indy 500: Marco Andretti is one special driver.

On Sunday, in his first shot at the race his grandfather won in 1969, the 19-year-old Andretti came within 100 yards of joining Mario on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Only a spectacular move by Sam Hornish Jr. on the final straightaway – making him the first driver in Indy to win with a last-lap pass – kept Marco from ending the Andretti family’s nearly four decades of frustration at the Brickyard.

Mario watched from Marco’s pit and was crestfallen after the checkered flag.

“He came so close,” he said. “I thought he was going to win.”

Mario paused, then added, “Of course, he’s got a lot of years left and he’s going to get a lot more chances.”

Since Mario first came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1965, the family has become an important part of the track’s lore. And, since Mario’s victory four years later, all manner of back luck has spoiled the Andrettis’ Memorial Day weekend.

Last year, Michael did get to Victory Circle as co-owner of the winning car of Dan Wheldon. But that’s not the same as if he or a family member got to drench themselves in winner’s milk.

It didn’t happen Sunday, either. But it was a pretty good day for the Nazareth, Pa., family.

Michael, who came out of a two-year retirement at 43 to race against his son Sunday, finished third, adding four laps to his record (430) for leading more trips around the 2.5-mile Indy oval than any other nonwinner.

And, with father and son racing within sight of each other nearly the entire 500 miles, it was a thrill for Michael to see Marco rise to the challenge at the biggest event of his life after finishing no better than 12th in his first three IRL IndyCar races.

But Michael also had a ringside seat to watch the latest disappointment for his family as Marco came up half a car-length short – the second closest finish at Indy. For just a precious moment, he thought his son had won.

“Literally, my hand was out of the cockpit,” Michael said. “Then I’m calling on the radio: “Did he win? Did Hornish pass him?’ It was disappointing.”

But that was Sunday. The future for Marco looks endless.

Three years ago, sitting in a hospitality tent at a racetrack, Mario looked across the table at his diminutive grandson and pronounced: “He has the potential to be the best Andretti of them all.”

That’s no small compliment coming from a driver who was a champion in Formula One and Indy cars and winner of NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and several major sports car events.

But it should come as no surprise to anyone that Marco is a racer. The youngster was drawn to speed almost from birth.

“I drove anything with wheels when I was a little kid – mo-peds, bicycles, go-carts, ATV’s,” Marco said. “It just seemed natural.”

He made no big mistakes during the month, started ninth in the 33-car field and stayed with the leaders all day Sunday before finally taking the lead from his father with a strong pass three laps from the end.

After that showing – one that would have thrilled most rookies – the youngest Andretti was visibly disappointed.

“I was just trying to be consistent and get the car home with no mistakes,” Marco said. “There were three or four times in this race where I almost crashed. I think you can’t go through a race without having any scares. But we made it to the end.

“I’m sure everybody is happy with me and I’m happy with myself, definitely. But they don’t remember people who finish second here, they really don’t. You’ve got to take advantage of every shot.”

His father was asked how big it would have been had Marco won.

“I think it’s still a great story,” Michael said. “But it would have been a better story.”

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