Andretti leads pack in qualifying

Michael Andretti relied on an old qualifying strategy on Saturday. He got intense, stayed focused and didn't worry about his starting position.

updated: February 25, 2007 11:40 IST
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Michael Andretti relied on an old qualifying strategy on Saturday. He got intense, stayed focused and didn't worry about his starting position. A few minutes later, the 43-year-old driver looked as nervous as a rookie at the Indianapolis 500. Andretti watched the television stoically with his arms and legs shaking, as his 19-year-old son, Marco, drove around the 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) oval six times. When the qualifying run ended, Andretti clasped his hands together at his chest and took a deep breath as he survived his toughest job ever at the track - being dad. Andretti is returning from a two-year retirement for two primary reasons: To race against his son and to win the race in which he has led more laps (426) than any other nonwinner. The first part was all but assured by Saturday's qualifying. Marco Andretti qualified ninth at 224.918 mph (361.893 kph), the fastest rookie in the 33-car field. Michael Andretti wasn't the only veteran dealing with tension on Saturday. Two-time Indy winner Al Unser Jr, who skipped last year's race after retiring, also returned albeit with a much slower car than the Andrettis. Unser qualified 27th and should make his 18th career start on May 28 after posting a four-lap average of 219.388 mph (352.995 kph). Surprisingly, Unser acknowledged he wasn't one of the favourites at a venue where his father won four times and his uncle, Bobby, won three times. Warmup lap Eddie Cheever Jr, the 1998 race winner, also was back in the cockpit after a three-year absence. Getting back into the car, much less earning the No 19 starting spot after going 222.028 mph (357.243 kph), made the 48-year-old American feel young again, too. Like Andretti, Cheever was nervous, especially after a close call in Turn 3 of his warmup lap. Cheever's No 51 car wiggled sideways, giving him a brief moment to reconsider his comeback. When he finally decided to speed up, Cheever proved he could still drive. His final three laps all topped 222 mph (357 kph) but a first lap speed of 220.916 mph (355.453 kph) helped Cheever's newly hired teammate Max Papis beat his owner with an average speed of 222.058 mph (357.291 kph). But Michael Andretti's return was the one most people watched. If the family's heartbreaking history at Indy wasn't a compelling enough story line, the elder driver now will compete in a second round of a father-son matchup in a role reversal of the decade-long battle between himself and Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indy winner. Marco Andretti outdueled his father on Saturday, but even the young rookie was experienced enough to know it didn't mean much. The truth is, Michael Andretti hasn't had a top 10 start since the IRL-CART split in 1996. But he has finished in the top 10 twice in his last three Indy races and was a contender in the third until a broken throttle linkage knocked him out after 94 laps in 2003. Now that he's back on the starting grid with a car and a team that could help him add a new chapter to the family history, Michael Andretti believes his old strategy will again make him a contender. (AP)