INDIANAPOLIS - John Andretti is coming back to his racing roots, at least for one more try at winning the Indianapolis 500.
Andretti, who has spent the past dozen years in NASCAR, joined Panther Racing on Wednesday as a teammate of Vitor Meira and Kosuke Matsuura for the May 27 race. It would be his first competition in the Indy Racing League, which began two years after his last appearance in an Indy car in 1994.
"Overwhelming would be an understatement," said Andretti, who grew up in Indianapolis and attended school less than a mile from the famed track. "I drove by here when I went to high school, and your whole life is centered around it, so to get back after a long hiatus is good. It's going to be exciting for me."
The 44-year-old nephew of former Indy winner Mario Andretti and cousin of Michael and Marco Andretti drove in seven Indy 500s from 1988 to 1994. His best finish was fifth in 1991, the same year he recorded his only IndyCar victory in Australia.
In 1994, he became the first driver to do the "double," racing in the Indy 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., on the same day.
That long-distance effort - he was 10th at Indy and 36th at Charlotte - forced repeated trips back and forth for practice, qualifications and the races.
"Staying here the whole time will help," Andretti said. "Fortunately for me, we've got really good teammates and they're going to be helping. We've got a strong plan. For me, it's probably an ideal situation. More ideal, obviously, would be more track time, but I don't consider it any kind of a handicap. The team is set. They've got two guys in the field, and hopefully we can get this third one in."
Matsuura qualified 17th and Meira 19th among the 22 who earned spots in the lineup last weekend. Marco Andretti, who was runner-up as a rookie last year, and his father, Michael, who was third, also have already qualified for Andretti Green Racing, which Michael Andretti co-owns.
John Andretti, who still must take the final two phases of a refresher test, did not practice Wednesday. Meira tested Andretti's car, though, and had a top lap of just more than 215 mph.
The fastest among the 27 drivers on the track was Danica Patrick at 221.189. Scott Dixon was next at 220.556, followed by defending champion Sam Hornish Jr. at 220.484 and Marco Andretti at 220.399.
Seven drivers who have not yet qualified also were on the track, with Jaques Lazier the quickest at just more than 217 mph. The others included Jimmy Kite, who crashed in turn one after 19 laps but was not injured.
"I wasn't going fast enough to hit anything that hard," said Kite, whose top speed was only 204.193.
mph. "We were just shaking the car down." I don't know if something broke or what. ... It didn't look like we hurt it that bad." Rookie Milka Duno also practiced for the first time since crashing on Friday, and veterans Roger Yasukawa and PJ Jones were on the track for the first time this month.
The final two days of qualifications are Saturday and Sunday.
John Andretti also plans to drive four Nextel Cup races this summer as a substitute for Kyle Petty, who will be an analyst on TNT. He said his return to Indy this month "was in the back of my mind for a long time." "Right after I did the double, every contract I had they wrote it in that I couldn't do it, so for the longest time I was kept away," he said. Without a full-time ride in NASCAR, however, he was available to race again at his hometown track this year. "John called me about a month ago, and then he called me the next day, the next day, the next day, the next morning, the next evening," Panther co-owner John Barnes said. "We had to get through the first weekend and make sure we were OK." Barnes also was lead mechanic for Mario Andretti's car in 1973, a team manager for Mario's youngest son, Jeff, in 1993, and team owner for Michael Andretti in 2001. "Not only am I a hired driver but I'm also a friend, and that helps in a lot of ways too, because it's more than just one relationship going on," John Andretti said. He said he did not anticipate any difficulty getting used to racing an Indy car again. "It's not like I haven't been here before," Andretti said. "Right now, I'm probably about as relaxed as I've ever been at the Speedway. I just really feel confident in the team and where we're at. I don't feel like I have to go out there and set a fast lap right away or anything. We're going to take a conservative approach to it and make sure that we do all the right things." He would not speculate whether this race might lead to a full-time return to Indy racing, though. "Let's just take the first steps. For me, it's the month of May and I could be doing other races and I chose to be here," he said. "It's just that it's back and it's here and it was something that worked out really well. If it didn't, then I wouldn't do it." Being an Andretti was part of it, too. "For the family thing, they tell you you're out of the family if you don't do the Indy 500. So I had to come back to get back in the family," he said. "Otherwise you lose the name after a while."comments powered by Disqus