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No Looking Back: Andretti Eyes The Big Two Of 500s

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 12 2010
John Andretti is spending his time this off season pondering his options. (RacinToday file photo by Tony Bush)

John Andretti is out of the 34 car and spending his time this off season pondering his options. (RacinToday file photo by Tony Bush)

Nobody ever bridged the gap between Indy car racing and NASCAR the way John Andretti did in 1994 when he become the first driver to compete at the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on the same day.

For a second straight year, Andretti will again divide his time between the Indy 500 and NASCAR events, starting with the Daytona 500.

“I’ve always like jumping around rather than staying in one place,” said Andretti, who will turn 47 in March. “I don’t mean that in the sense of team to team, but moving between different series.”

Last year Andretti drove in the Sprint Cup Series for the Front Row Motorsports team of Bob Jenkins – except for two weekends in May, when he competed at Indy with Richard Petty as his car owner.

Despite missing two Sprint Cup races, Andretti finished 36th in points and the Jenkins team finished 35th in its first full season, giving it a guaranteed starting spot in the first five races of the 2010 season. But Jenkins has decided to expand his operation under sponsorship brought by driver Travis Kvapil and Andretti finds himself looking at new options.

That suits Andretti fine, he said, because he’d prefer to hit the high notes of the major races and not concentrate on one series. He may continue to run selected Sprint Cup events with Jenkins and is also looking at occasional appearances in the Camping World Truck Series.

“I think it was a little bit of both,” said Andretti when asked if he and Jenkins each liked the idea of a different program in 2010. “We accomplished everything we started out to do last year. Funding is important to get bigger and I think he’s going to move forward.”

Andretti, who brought Front Row more than $3 million in purse money last year, said he is ready to spend more time with his family, including a son and two daughters. “You make some sacrifices sometimes for financial gain,” he said. “I’m ready to not do that.”

A relatively short entry list is expected for this year’s Daytona 500, plus there are numbers available that would guarantee a start. Andretti anticipates driving a car with one of the car numbers that finished in the Top 35 last year, but declined to talk about his options specifically. Numbers are available because two team owners, Richard Childress and Jack Roush, are dropping one entry in 2010 while a third, Hall of Fame Racing, has yet to make its plans clear.

“You want to be locked into the race,” said Andretti. “The strategy has been to get into that position. Numbers are being bought and sold. That situation is moving pretty fast.”

A winner at Daytona in the summer race of 1997 while driving for Cale Yarborough, Andretti is also eligible to race in the Bud Shootout under its new format, providing another incentive for a car owner.

Andretti’s career has always been fluid and fast-moving. He won a GT Prototype race at Watkins Glen in the Camel GT Series in his first season with the BMW factory team at the age of 23. In his first start with the CART team of legendary team owner Jim Hall, Andretti won at Surfer’s Paradise. In a brief stint in the NHRA, Andretti went to the semi-finals at the Atlanta Dragway in the Top Fuel bracket by beating Joe Amato before losing to Eddie Hill.

Moving to NASCAR, Andretti beat Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon to the punch with his Indy-Charlotte double. That helped him land a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup, where his victory at Martinsville in 1999 was the last one scored by Petty Enterprises.

Andretti is not one to move for the sake of moving or greener pastures. He acknowledges he stayed at Petty Enterprises more out of loyalty than career considerations at a time when his stock in Sprint Cup was quite high. A little more than a year after his win at Martinsville, Adam Petty was killed in a crash at New Hampshire.

“I was there and trying to help build Petty Enterprises back up,” said Andretti. “Unfortunately, when Adam was killed some of the fire to rebuild wasn’t there and the team and everybody there went through a difficult period.”

When the team continued to founder, Kyle Petty elected to fire Andretti, who just three years earlier had been paid a six-figure bonus for his victory at Martinsville. At the time, Kyle Petty said he needed to change the team chemistry. Andretti says he understood the difficulties faced by Kyle. “You have to understand that Kyle and Adam were really, really close. It was more than father and son,” said Andretti, who became a part-timer in the Sprint Cup in 2003. “I don’t know how I would be able to deal with what happened to the Pettys if it happened to me.”

After four seasons of driving part-time for eight different Sprint Cup car owners, including Petty Enterprises, Andretti returned to the Indy 500 in 2008 with the team of Canadian Marty Roth. The son of Aldo Andretti, Mario Andretti’s twin brother, John had grown up in Indianapolis at the height of the Indy 500’s popularity amidst one of the event’s most celebrated families. His return to the race rejuvenated him, he said. Once back in NASCAR events, Andretti said he began driving like a teen-ager.

“Two years ago, I went to Indianapolis and then did five more races,” he said. “I had a ball. When I drive an Indy car, I turn into an 18-year-old kid. Every inch is worth getting and every risk is worth it.”

There is no irony in the ongoing relationship between Richard Petty and Andretti, who delighted in putting together the deal that brought “The King” of stock car racing to the Indy 500 as a car owner last year. For many years, Petty had made appearances at Indy as part of his sponsorship agreement with STP, but due to his NASCAR obligations had never been able to particpate beyond that, particularly on race day. Andretti was happy to give “The King” the opportunity.

“As I’ve gone through life, there’s certain people I’ve tried to emulate and had the most respect for. Richard Petty and Lynda Petty are some of those people,” said Andretti. “I feel like I’m a member of their family as much as I’m a member of the Andretti family. Richard and I have a relationship that goes beyond motorsports.”

The deal to return to Indy, where the Andretti/Petty entry ran under the banner of the Dryer & Reinbold, has yet to be put together. But as so often in his career, Andretti is confident about working out the details as each season comes along.

“I’d like to think we can put together a program similar to what we had last year,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the month of May.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 12 2010
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