Bill Fleischman: Marco Andretti finally wins again in IndyCar

AS RACES, AND YEARS, went by and Marco Andretti failed to win another race, skeptics could be heard whispering that maybe he has the name but not the game to be a big winner in IndyCar racing.

The runner-up finish in his first Indianapolis 500 start 6 years ago? He almost beat Sam Hornish Jr., but maybe his impressive finish was a fluke. Andretti's barely qualifying at Indy this year was more a problem with his car than with him.

Finally, Saturday night at Iowa Speedway, Andretti, 24, won his second IndyCar Series race (his first was at Sonoma, Calif., during his rookie year).

"I never doubted myself or the equipment or the team," Andretti told the Daily News Tuesday. "I just kept at it. We've been so close so many times. I can count on two hands how many times we've been in a position to win a race. I knew when all the stars were aligned I'd [win]."

"We're hoping this is a turning point. The morale and confidence level [are] great. The way we're looking at is, the other drivers will have to beat us to win."

Andretti is eighth in the Izod IndyCar point standings.

"It's been a disappointing start to the year," he said. "We had a top 10 at Indy [ninth], but we don't race Indy for a top 10. I've been second and third there. I want to win that thing so bad."

Andretti drives for the Andretti Autosport stable owned by his father, Michael. Marco's teammates are Danica Patrick, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway.

When Marco was growing up in Nazareth, Pa., his father and grandfather Mario were still racing open-wheel cars at Nazareth Speedway. The last IndyCar race on the 1-mile Lehigh Valley oval was in 2001.

"For my father's and grandfather's whole careers, I wish I was old enough to appreciate it fully," Marco said. "When you're a kid, you're running around and it's like, 'They won again,' but you don't appreciate what they're doing."

Marco and his racing rivals will debut in the Baltimore Grand Prix Sept. 4 on the streets of the Inner Harbor. The course winds around Camden Yards.

"The track layout looks fantastic," Marco said. "It's basically my home race. I'm definitely looking forward to it."

STEWART MELLOWING?

The scene I'll remember most from Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Sonoma is Tony Stewart's car "parked" on a stack of tires. Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet was delivered there via payback from Brian Vickers.

Earlier in the race, Stewart had spun Vickers' No. 83 Toyota, saying Vickers had blocked him. Vickers denied blocking Stewart, pointing out that Kyle Busch had gone off the narrow track. As Busch returned to the track, Vickers said he was attempting to avoid him.

After the race, I fully expected "Snarling" Stewart to replace "Smoke" Stewart. Instead, a somewhat mellow Stewart said: "I don't blame him for dumping us back. He did what he had to do. There is nothing wrong with it. But if guys want to block, they are going to get wrecked every time."

I don't get it. If I'm racing and another driver blocks me, the sane response is to wait until the time is right and then pass him. Perhaps a confrontation occurs after the race. Why tear up racecars?

As a victim of Vickers' payback, Stewart finished 39th and dropped to 12th in points. He is 15 points out of the 10th and final automatic qualifying position for the Chase.

With no wins this season and 10 races to go until the Chase begins, Stewart is in danger of not joining the Chase. Under the new Chase system, the two drivers with the most wins in the top 20 in points receive the two wild-card spots to fill out the 12-driver Chase field.

The good news for Stewart is, he has 22 career victories on the next 10 racetracks. His total is second only to Jeff Gordon's 35 wins on those tracks.

PARTNERING IN SPEED

Presumably, we can expect more tandem racing at Daytona Saturday night in NASCAR's Coke Zero 400. Remember the season-opening Daytona 500? Drivers found it was faster on the repaved Daytona International Speedway track to choose a partner and race 'round and 'round the track as if magnets were on their cars.

Jeff Gordon says he'll work with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin, at least early in the race.

"If you're the car in back, you just follow that rear bumper and try to keep as much air getting into the radiator as you possibly can," Gordon said. "You just follow that car wherever it goes. Once you get into a pack of cars, especially toward the end of the race when you are trying to make passes, you've got to make some pretty evasive moves if you're the leader."

THIS WEEK'S RACE

Coke Zero 400

Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: TNT/WNPV (1440-AM), WDSD (94.7-FM)

Race course: 2.5-mile oval

Race distance:

160 laps/400 miles

Race forecast: Showers, 80 degrees

Last year's winner: Kevin Harvick

Last year's pole winner: none, qualifying rained out; starting field determined by points

Track qualifying record: With restrictor plates, Ken Schrader, 196.996 mph (February 1989); without plates, Bill Elliott, 210.364 mph (February 1987)

Track facts: Kevin Harvick led 28 laps, including the last two, to win last year's race. Kasey Kahne was runner-up; Jeff Gordon was third . . . Gordon's six Daytona wins top active drivers. Tony Stewart is a three-time Daytona winner . . . Surprising Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, a part-time Cup series racer this year, must qualify on speed for Saturday's race . . . Jeff Burton, suffering through a disappointing season (24th in points), will become the 22nd driver all-time to start 600 races Saturday . . . The 11 different winners in the season's first 16 races are the most since 2003.

Wins: Kevin Harvick, 3; Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon, 2 each; Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, 1 each.

SPRINT CUP STANDINGS (Through 16 of 36 races)

1. Carl Edwards 573

2. Kevin Harvick 548

3. Jimmie Johnson 540

4. Kurt Busch 539

5. Kyle Busch 536

6. Matt Kenseth 521

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 508

8. Clint Bowyer 496

9. Jeff Gordon 480

10. Ryan Newman 475

11. Denny Hamlin 463

12. Tony Stewart 460

13. Greg Biffle 446

14. Mark Martin 443

15. A.J. Allmendinger 433

16. Juan Montoya 432

17. Paul Menard 429

18. Martin Truex Jr. 412

19. Kasey Kahne 411

20. David Ragan 410

Up next: Quaker State 400, July 9, Kentucky Speedway, Sparta, Ky., 7:30 p.m.; TV: TNT.