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Published: Sunday, 5/24/2009

NASCAR legend sponsors Mario's nephew in Indy 500

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
John Andretti, left, nephew of former Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti, right, will compete in today's race thanks to a sponsorship deal with former NASCAR driver Richard Petty. John Andretti, left, nephew of former Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti, right, will compete in today's race thanks to a sponsorship deal with former NASCAR driver Richard Petty.
DARRON CUMMINGS / AP Enlarge

INDIANAPOLIS - Two of the biggest names in racing - Petty and Andretti - have joined forces and put together an entry for today's Indy 500. It was not simple, but it seems that nothing at Indy ever is.

After a sponsorship deal was orchestrated by stock car racing legend Richard Petty, driver John Andretti still had to qualify for the race. During an arduous bumping process, he was in, then out, several times before finally securing the 28th starting position in the 33-car field.

"I guess you appreciate it more when you really have to work hard for something, but I never want to go through that again," Andretti said. "That's just Indy, I guess."

Andretti will drive the No. 43 car - a number Petty immortalized while winning seven championships in the Grand National and Winston Cup series. Petty said that while several of his contemporaries such as A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti (John's uncle) raced both open-wheel and stock cars, Petty stayed with what he knew best.

"My career never crossed over," Petty said. "You got to figure that we were in the stock cars, and we owned our own cars. We didn't have big sponsors and stuff. That was our business, so I never ventured out to run Indy."

Andretti, who has raced in NASCAR for Petty Enterprises since 1993, was the first driver in history to run in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 stock car race in North Carolina on the same day. He was 10th in the Indy race and 36th in the stock car event in 1993. Andretti will be making his 10th start in today's Indy 500, with a career-best fifth place finish in 1991.

"I'm really pleased to be in the race and to be connected with Richard here," Andretti said. "Like I've said before, a lot of the best moments in my career have come while I was driving for Richard. I think the world of him and his family, and I appreciate everything he has done for me. He's a real classy guy."

Petty said he saw his first in-person Indy 500 last year, at Andretti's invitation.

"We used to listen to the race on radio when I was a kid, and we always was able to watch the race in Charlotte, then wait for our race to start," Petty said.

"You see all the hullabaloo that goes on to begin with, all the people wandering up and down pit road, and it was really everything I expected it to be. I think I got kind of caught up in it, then John figured if he could get me here, get me all excited in what I seen, then maybe he could talk me into being involved."

HELIO LEADS: After winning the pole for today's race earlier in the month, two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves has kept his car out front in the days leading up to the event. In the final practice session before the race, Castroneves posted the top average speed for a lap at 223.920 miles per hour.

"Our setup is good, the car is good, and the team is ready," Castroneves said. "We should be in good shape. We're not overconfident, but I feel very comfortable in the car. I think we've shown all month how solid the Team Penske car is."

Castroneves had his confidence boosted even further when his Team Penske crew won the Indianapolis 500 Pit Stop Challenge for the third straight year.

SPEED BUMP: After Bruno Junqueira qualified his Conquest Racing No. 36 entry on the outside of row 10 for today's Indy 500, he was summarily bounced from the seat in favor of the team's primary driver, Alex Tagliani, who had failed to qualify.

Conquest Racing owner Eric Bachelart said Tagliani was the victim of "exceptional circumstances."

"That's how the magic of Indy works sometimes; it can be good or bad. We've been working with Alex for a long time now and have built our commercial and marketing program around him. He has been our primary driver since the start of the season, and we felt that it was in the best interest of the team and our partners to have him in the car for the Indy 500 as we continue to build our future together."

Junqueira gracefully fell on the sword.

"It's a shame that Alex got bumped out of the field," Junqueira said. "I knew coming into this that Alex is Conquest's primary driver and that if something happened to the first car that I would likely give him my place, and I completely understand it. They gave me a really good car and hopefully I can work with them again [in] the future."

MATERNITY SUIT: Pit reporter Brienne Pedigo will work today's race for ESPN/ABC, but since she is expecting a child in October, Pedigo needed a customized firesuit. Manufacturer Impact designed a special suit that is equipped with a stretch gusset in the back, so that it can be expanded as her pregnancy progresses and she continues to work ABC's five-race schedule of IndyCar Series events this summer. Pedigo is married to actor Tyler Christopher of ABC's General Hospital.

GOOD OMEN: The winner of today's race has to hope the tradition continues, since the past four Indy 500 winners have gone on to claim the IndyCar series championship that year as well. The streak began in 2005 with Dan Wheldon, followed by Sam Hornish Jr. (2006), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Scott Dixon last year.



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