90th Indy 500
You Were Right Tony
by Esteban Morales
May 28 , 2006
The legendary 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Borg-Warner Trophy have a tendency of bringing out the best in drivers regardless of handicap or experience. In 1996 an injured Buddy Lazier drove to victory while nursing a broken back; as early as last year, rookie Danica Patrick thrilled millions by leading the race in its closing stages. This year was no different. Marco Andretti, the latest member of the Andretti clan to find his way into an IndyCar cockpit has received a great deal of criticism concerning his age (at 19 he is the youngest driver in the IndyCar field) and relative lack of experience compared to the series' heavy hitters. Though he did not taste milk in victory lane, he showed the competition that he has what it takes by coming up a few yards short of carving his face onto the Borg-Warner in only his first try. The spectacular finish, the best in recent memory, ended with Sam Hornish Jr. spoiling a fairytale ending to the event but capturing a deserved win.
After topping the speed charts throughout May and taking pole, Hornish was touted as a favorite coming into the race. However, defending champion Dan Wheldon looked set to capture a second consecutive Indy 500 victory once the event was underway. Wheldon, who started third, moved into second on the opening lap just before the first yellow of the day flew for a collision between Jeff Bucknum and P.J. Chesson. One lap after the track went green Wheldon moved into the lead with Hornish a close second. The leader began to check out at the head of the field while Hornish and AGR's Tony Kanaan dueled for second. Further back in the pack rookie Marco Andretti and his father Michael, who jumped back into a firesuit specifically to win Indy, were steadily working their way to the front after starting ninth and thirteenth, respectively. By lap 27 the younger Andretti moved around Tomas Scheckter and broke into the top five.
By the first quarter of the race, the leaders cycled through their first set of green flag pit stops and Wheldon continued to dominate, at one point building a twelve-second lead over Hornish. Marco continued to hover near the head of the field while electrical glitches left the elder Andretti with a blank readout on his steering wheel. However, just after Scheckter had moved around Marco for fifth his Dallara oversteered exiting turn 4 and sent him crashing against the pit road attenuator bringing out the second caution of the day on lap 66. Wheldon led the field into pit road and exited in the lead with teammate Scott Dixon in second and Kanaan in third. With the drop of the green Wheldon continued to thrash the field and led through the halfway mark slowing only for his third visit to pitlane on lap 108. Two laps later a third yellow flew for an unlikely accident between race-favorite Helio Castroneves and former winner Buddy Rice; at the end of the yellow Michael Andretti came back into the pits to top off his fuel tank, a key move that would set up the finish.
With the lap 125 restart the race began to come alive as it moved towards its closing stages. Dixon dove into the lead and Hornish took second from Wheldon on the next lap. Wheldon responded by retaking the lead and continued to battle with Hornish until a lap 148 yellow for returning veteran Al Unser Jr. halted the action at the front. Wheldon looked set to win his second consecutive 500 while Hornish seemed to lose any chance at victory after tearing his fuel hose while exiting his pit, then receiving a drive-through penalty that left him about a half a lap behind the leaders. Similar to Andrettis strategy, Hornish came back into the pits before the field went green and topped off on fuel giving him a chance, albeit slim, at victory.
Looking for his first Indy 500 win, Kanaan relentlessly pursued Wheldon while Marco moved into third. With eighteen laps to go the former AGR teammates fought wheel-to-wheel for the lead of the most prestigious victory the U.S. has to offer. Wheldon's Dallara wiggled on lap 183 allowing Kanaan to take command of the event. With just ten laps remaining Marco Andretti dove into the pits as the yellow flew for Felipe Giaffone making contact in turn 2. As the leaders pitted Michael Andretti inherited the lead with son Marco in second and Hornish looming behind. With only four circuits left when the green flag dropped the Andretti Curse looked set to vanish; if Michael did not win it, surely Marco would, especially with teammate Bryan Herta in a position to block Hornish. Only three laps stood between the Andretti's and victory lane, the rookie saw the chance of a lifetime and sent the crowd roaring by taking the lead of the Indianapolis 500 on lap 197. Hornish took second from Michael and was set to chase down the leader with just two laps to go. Marco blocked Hornish and both crossed the finish line with less than a second between them. Hornish flawlessly drove the final lap and closed on Andretti with incredible speed; he made a move to the inside with a run off of turn 4 on the final lap and crossed the line .0635 of a second in front of Andretti, the second closest finish at IMS. Overtaken by the emotion, the ecstatic winner proudly announced that he “wouldn't trade it for anything else!” Meanwhile, heartbroken Marco Andretti was forced to find some consolation in a debut Indy performance that announced his arrival as a contender. Earlier this May, Tony Kanaan was right when he told a reporter that Marco was on the verge of impressing the world.