Saturday, May 27, 2017

2017 would be a good time to see the Andretti Curse cease

Marco Andretti practicing for the Indy Grand Prix in 2014.
I'm going on the record right now: This is the year the Andretti Curse is broken at the Indianapolis 500.

Yes, I'm talking about third-generation driver Marco Andretti winning the biggest IndyCar race in the world. It would break a curse that's existed since his grandfather Mario won his only 500 back in 1969. Marco's dad, Michael Andretti, never won as a driver, though he's been to victory lane as a team owner as recently as last year for the 100th running of the race with driver Alexander Rossi.

Marco's rookie season was back in 2006 as a 19-year-old. He nearly won the 500 on his first try. He and his dad both led during the race. Marco had the race in his grasp through the last lap and even out of turn four. But Sam Hornish Jr. was close enough to make a move, getting around him just before the yard of bricks for the victory. It was one of the closest 500s in history at a 0.0635 margin.

"Second's nothing," Marco said on the broadcast after the race.

Marco's bad luck continues the curse 
With that, it appeared the Andretti Curse was still alive and well for another generation. Marco did well in 2007 for a while, but the race was disrupted by rain and he eventually crashed out.

The luck continued in 2009 when he and Mario Moraes collected each other in the first green-flag turn of the race. There's a common saying in racing that you can't win the race in the first turn, but you sure can lose it.

Marco definitely hasn't had the same run of winning success that both his father and grandfather had in open-wheel racing. Whether it's a difference in ability or just the different environment of racing these days (perhaps with the dominance of Team Penske and Team Ganassi) I'm not really sure. Marco also races for his dad's team, and I'm sure he feels the pressure of the Andretti name.

Indy experience without the trip to victory lane 
This year will be Marco's 12th Indy 500. He has seven top-10 finishes and five in the top-five. He best finish was the runner-up his rookie season in 2006. Of course, drivers will tell you that unless you win at Indy, it really doesn't matter where you finish.

Overall, Marco has just two IndyCar wins to his name: 2006 Sonoma and 2011 Iowa. Like most drivers, the race they most want to win is the Indy 500. It's like a talented player in any other sport getting all kinds of successful recognition but never winning a championship. I'm sure Marco would love to celebrate a win at Indy with his team, father and grandpa.

Michael's side of the curse 
Mario and Michael raced many years together (other branches of the family tree dabbled in the Ind 500, too), and it's a shame there's only one Indy win between them. Michael led the most laps at Indy without ever getting a victory. They had their fair share of crashes, bad luck and mechanical problems. The famous 1992 race - 25 years ago now - seemed to be Michael's. He had a strong day, but his car betrayed him with 11 laps to go.

Michael retired and became a team owner. He's won four Indy 500s as an owner, the first in 2005 with the late Dan Wheldon. I caught that broadcast this week on ESPN Classic, as they traditionally run classic 500s in he week leading up to the big race.

Brent Musburger said on the broadcast that the Andretti Curse was broken with that win. I'm not sure if that's the general consensus. The fact that no one named Andretti has won as a driver since 1969 is what's really striking and means the curse is still around. Don't forget, Michael came out of retirement to compete in the 500 again, in 2006 and 2007.

Some of the best drivers of Mario's era have multiple 500 wins, something everyone thought Mario would have, too. AJ Foyt, 82, Al Unser, 77, and Rick Mears, 65, all have four wins apiece. Al's brother Bobby had three wins.

If there's a year for it, might as well be now 
So, why am I all-in on Marco? Fair question, since he hasn't dominated as a driver. But in 2017, why not? Think about the other champions that have been crowned within the last year. The Chicago Cubs put together a remarkable season, got to the World Series for the first time since 1945, then came back from being down three games to one to win it for the first tie in 108 years. Breaking the ultimate sports curse.

The New England Patriots came back from a 25-point deficit to win the Super Bowl this year. They didn't bust a curse or anything, but still.

I'm generally not big on predictions. Although, whenever we're at a race, Dad always asks who we pick to win. Anything can happen over the course of a 500-mile race on Memorial Day weekend. Nobody knows that better than the Andrettis. (Go back and watch the final laps of the 2006 race and pay attention to Mario on pit lane if you don't believe me.)

A bad pit stop, penalty, crash or just bad luck can doom a race. Even a bad starting position doesn't bode well - historically winners have started from the first two rows - 60 times out of 100 races.

It'd be great to keep the string of great storylines going in sports with a Marco Andretti win in the Indy 500, shattering the family curse at the storied speedway.