The Continued Evolution of Marco Andretti

As I was perusing Twitter this afternoon, I came across this tweet from @TonyJWriter:

I guess since I’m already complaining, I’ll ask this: Why does IndyCar supposedly NEED Graham and Marco to be successful?

As you can all imagine, his tweet made me think.  I’ve never tried to hide the fact I’m a big fan of Marco Andretti.  If you didn’t know it before, this post from last year left no doubt.  I’m a fan, but I can still be objective.  As I said last year, 2012 was not an easy year to be a fan of Marco.  He had a lot of bad luck, most of which he created for himself.  But, as I also wrote last year, he took matters in his own hands after that nightmarish season, worked on areas in which he needed improvement, and it worked.  He turned in much better results in 2013, and finished a career-best 5th in championship points.

I’ve had a few opportunities to interact with Marco over the past 2 years–at both Indy and Baltimore in 2012 and 2013.  I don’t know him by any means, but I noticed a definite difference in his demeanor and interaction with fans from one year to the next.  I really thought he would pull out a win last season (and told him that in Indy), and I don’t think I am the only one who felt that way.  Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen.  It was still a great season and a somewhat amazing turnaround, in my opinion.  Not just in the results he turned in, but in the way he handled races that didn’t go his way.

Gone was the driver who allowed one bad turn to escalate into a crash or other mistake, and resulting poor finish.  He always had the talent to succeed, but Marco has transformed himself into a patient driver who makes intelligent choices and waits for the right opportunity to make his move.  And he has what can only be called a renewed confidence in himself.  In 2013, he doubled his career poles, tied for his highest number of top-5 finishes (6), finished all but 4 races in the top 10 (setting a career-best of 15 top-10 finishes), and was running at the finish of all but 1 race.

After Marco’s great start in 2013, I read several articles stating his season had “fizzled” in the second half because he failed to capture the elusive win.  I would argue the numbers say otherwise.  He was in contention for the championship late into the season and but for a twist of fate here and there, he very well could have been one of the drivers going for the win in Fontana.

Which brings us to 2014.  In St. Petersburg, Marco made the Fast Six in qualifying, starting the race in P6.  Unfortunately, he was caught up in a crash on a restart and finished the race in last place after being knocked out, injuring his wrist in the process.  I read a few articles saying “the old Marco” was back.  I also read a tweet from Marco saying he wanted to win the championship from last.  It seemed a long way to climb at the time.

In Long Beach, he started and finished P8.  Yes, this was largely due to the crash caused by his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, but you know “the old Marco” would have found a way to become involved in that crash or its aftermath, and would have found himself out of the race too.  That’s just how things went for Marco in 2012.  This season, he avoided it all and ended up in the top 10.  It pulled him up a little bit in championship points.

Then came Barber.  Marco advanced to round 2 of qualifications for the third time in three races, and started P9.  When the rains came and delayed the race, I had a feeling it would be a great day for Marco.  He raced smart and made some well-timed passes to put himself up into P2 as the minutes ticked away on the timed race.  He held off a challenge from Scott Dixon during the closing laps of the race.  RHR seemed out of reach, but when Mikhail Aleshin crashed it seemed Marco might get a chance to go for the win on the restart.  Unfortunately for Marco, the safety crew was not able to get the crash cleaned up in time for a restart, and the race finished under yellow.  Marco brought it home in P2, completing a 1-2 finish and a great day for Andretti Autosport, and climbing all the way up to P6 in championship points. Last to first doesn’t seem quite so far away anymore…

In his Winners and Losers post, IndyCar blogger Matt Hickey said this in declaring Marco a winner from the Barber weekend:

The Marco Andretti smile is alive and well following Barber. Andretti was pissed about his qualifying effort. My logic is if you’re pissed about a P9 effort, then you’re doing something right. I knew Marco was primed for a great race, but I didn’t see a P2 result coming. Great job for him following a solid P8 at Long Beach.

I could not agree more!  Marco has reached a point where he’s not happy with just qualifying in the top 10.  He knows how to qualify higher, and is disappointed when he doesn’t.  His post-race interview was awesome.  When asked about Will Power’s puzzling trip off track while leading the race by what seemed like a mile, he replied, “He’s human.  He can be beat.”  A simple statement that spoke volumes about Marco’s confidence and the focus he brings to the track every week.

Will Marco finally get that third win in 2014?  Obviously, I hope he does.  But objectively, I believe he will.  We had 10 different winners in 2013 and we’ve had 3 different winners already in 2014.  There is no reason to believe one or two drivers will step up and dominate the rest of the season, so the odds are in Marco’s favor.

Back to Tony’s question.  Does IndyCar NEED Marco to be successful?  It’s obvious why success is expected of Marco.  Look at his family.  When times were tough(er) for IndyCar, Andretti was the name people knew.  The torch was passed to a teenager, and he showed a lot of early success.  Unfortunately his career hit some rough patches, and he hasn’t realized the potential so many feel he has.  Personally, I think some people are beyond the point of expecting success from Marco.  I think there are a lot of people who are ready to move on and look for a star in another driver.

IndyCar needs a star driver, that’s for sure.  A name everyone knows, and someone who provides consistent quality results week after week.  I’d dearly love for that star driver to be Marco.  He has it in him, and I think the steps he’s shown are only the beginning.  However, I think IndyCar could continue to grow if another driver assumes the star role.  And maybe removing that pressure from Marco’s shoulders is the thing that will allow him to achieve the success so many expected of him back in 2006.

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