Speed Freak: What a difference a year makes 

What curse? asks Marco Andretti.
Merriam-Webster says a "curse" is an "evil or misfortune that comes as if in response to imprecation or as retribution" - a definition with which the Andrettis would no doubt agree. After all, they've contended with their own eponymous curse, the Andretti Curse, since 1969, when team owner Andy Granatelli kissed young driver Mario Andretti after he won the race.

In the ensuing years, bad luck has plagued the entire Andretti clan - Mario, son Jeff, son Michael, nephew John, and grandson Marco - at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As a group, they are 1 and 54 at Indy (although Michael has fielded a couple winners as a team owner - namely, Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Dario Franchitti in 2007).

At no time was the curse more evident for Michael, who retired from driving in 2007, than last year, when his Andretti Autosport team struggled to get up to speed. During pole day, the team managed to qualify only one car out of five, driven by John Andretti. On the outside looking in were Danica Patrick, Mike Conway, Marco Andretti, and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

On a bump day interrupted twice by rain, Conway, who had suffered a season-ending crash at Indy the year before, never got up to speed; his day ended in disappointment. Things looked better for Patrick, Andretti, and Hunter-Reay - until Andretti got bumped by Alex Lloyd late in the day. With the 6 p.m. deadline looming, Marco had one last chance to "stick it in the fence or stick it in the show."

The result: Marco was in, but at teammate Hunter-Reay's expense. When the gun fired, signifying the end of qualifying, a gutted Hunter-Reay was the odd man out. (A day later, Michael struck a deal with AJ Foyt to put Hunter-Reay in the car qualified by Foyt's second driver, Bruno Junqueira, a move that was universally jeered by fans.)

What a difference a year makes! All five Andretti Autosport cars - piloted this year by Marco and Hunter-Reay, along with James Hinchcliffe, Ana Beatriz, and Sebastian Saveedra - qualified on pole day, despite Saveedra having blown an engine early in the day. Moreover, Hinchcliffe, Hunter-Reay, and Marco qualified second, third, and fourth, respectively.

Hinchcliffe was particularly fast, a mere .0023 seconds behind pole winner Ryan Briscoe over four laps. For Hunter-Reay, starting on the outside of the first row was particularly sweet. "I've felt the lows here," he told reporters afterward. "I'm certainly taking it in and absorbing the temporary high of being on the front row."

With Marco starting P4, could this year be the year the Andretti Curse is broken? Stay tuned.

Rookie driver Josef Newgarden.

Notes:

* I'd like to note for the record that I was right when I said there would, indeed, be 33 cars in the field - although it didn't take a brain surgeon to guess that IndyCar would find a way to make it happen.

* Chip Ganassi's four cars, piloted by Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Charlie Kimball, and Graham Rahal, are conspicuously absent from the front three rows of this year's field. Watch for them to advance during the race.

* Former driver and current team owner Sarah Fisher experienced a bipolar pole day with her rookie American drivers, Josef Newgarden and Bryan Clauson. Clauson crashed badly in his qualifying attempt, but Newgarden landed his car at P7. Ultimately, after mechanics scrambled to reassemble his ride, Clauson did qualify - although at a disappointing P31.

* Although speeds have been down this month due to kinks in the new car, engine manufacturers did boost engines for qualifying. As a result, this year's pole average, 226.484, was just a tick off pace from last year's average of 227.472. Race speeds may be a bit lower, however, as the boost will have been removed.

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