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Wide-open Indy 500 cause for excitement

Brent Smith/Reuters

Calling the Indianapolis 500 “our Super Bowl,’’ Marco Andretti looks to add to the sterling legacy of his family in the sport.

INDIANAPOLIS - Marco Andretti knows how much heartache his family has suffered at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He needs no reminders that IndyCar could use an American superstar, and with his famous last name, he is quite aware of the hope that maybe he can be the one to elevate this attention-starved series.

None of that matters to Andretti as he heads into the Indianapolis 500.

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He believes he can win Sunday’s race - “it’s going to be our race to lose,’’ he said - and he wants it, badly. But Andretti wants it for himself, for his own career, and not because of what it would mean to his family or for IndyCar. Mario Andretti won in 1969, and no Andretti has done it again in 65 starts - and many of those races were devastating near-misses.

“That’s not my approach to the event. My approach is I want to win our Super Bowl,’’ Andretti said. “I put that pressure on myself. I don’t want to do it because he did it and my dad didn’t, that’s all bonus. Do I think we can? You’re darn right.’’

The 96th running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing’’ is the most wide-open race in a very long time. Engine competition for the first time in six years and the introduction of a new car have widened the pool of potential winners, and there is no clear favorite.

“I think we’re going to see the best race we’ve had in at least a decade,’’ said Roger Penske, winner of 15 Indy 500s and the team owner of pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe.

Penske is undefeated this season, as Helio Castroneves and points leader Will Power have combined to win the first four races. And with Chevrolet power, Penske drivers have swept all five poles this season.

So it seemed to be business as usual on pole day, when Chevrolet clearly had the edge. The team put nine drivers inside the top 10, and all six of the full-time entries were from Penske and Andretti Autosport.

Then came Carb Day, and the Hondas came to life.

Chip Ganassi teammates Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon were atop the leaderboard, with Andretti landing third on the final speed chart as the fastest Chevy driver.

“Maybe some sandbagging?’’ Franchitti wondered as Andretti slid into the seat next to him following their final on-track session before the race. “Do you really think we’re all going to show what we can do?’’

The return of Chevrolet in addition to Lotus has renewed rivalries in IndyCar, and the fight between Chevy and Honda has been on display since the track opened May 9. Chevy lost two appeals in its fight to prevent Honda from getting a new compressor cover for its turbocharger, and the final decision came the day before practice officially opened.

Honda then dominated on the track, particularly Josef Newgarden and Bryan Clauson, the two young American drivers for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. But there was skepticism that the Chevy teams were simply holding back, and that sure seemed to be the case after qualifying.

There’s been no speculation whatsoever about the two Lotus entries, which have been so far off the pace there have been calls for IndyCar to park Simona de Silvestro and Jean Alesi after the start. The engine is a tremendous handicap to Alesi, the 47-year-old former Formula One driver who has never before raced an IndyCar, never raced on an oval, and has been only sporadically racing in anything at all the last several years.

On Friday, his last day in the car before the race, Alesi was clocked at 204.452 miles per hour - almost 10 miles slower than the last non-Lotus car, and a long way off Franchitti’s 222.360.

“The engine is a disaster,’’ he was picked up saying during the television broadcast of practice. “The engine is really bad.’’

Nothing has been bad for Andretti, who has been one of the few constants this month at Indy. He’s been consistently fast, and was thought to be a threat for the pole. He wound up fourth, right behind teammates James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

IndyCar is seeking a new star now that Danica Patrick has fled to NASCAR, and will miss her first Indy 500 since 2005. She was the de facto face of the series, and IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard knows he needs somebody else to step up and fill her void.

He knows that an Andretti win would be a very good thing for the series.

“Wherever you go in the world, Andretti is known in racing,’’ he said. “This is Marco’s stance. I’ve never seen him so confident. It’s like a new Marco to me.’’

But Bernard doesn’t care who wins so long as it is a great race with tremendous story lines. He watched on television as Bubba Watson won the Masters in April, and the golf had him longing for an emotional victory celebration in his series.

The promoter in him craves that spontaneous moment that captures the audience.

“When you’re sitting at home on the couch, or you’re sitting here, you just watched an exhausting 500 miles of a great race, and the drivers get absorbed in it and show their passion,’’ Bernard said. “These 33 drivers, they have no guarantee they’re going to be in the race next year. This could be their last opportunity to win. That’s the drama. I think that is important to the sport.’’

Indy got that emotion last year when J.R. Hildebrand crashed coming out of the final turn while leading. It opened the door for Dan Wheldon to sail by for his second Indy 500 win, and made for a fascinating display of raw emotion. There was the rookie Hildebrand, devastated but showing how to lose with dignity, and there was Wheldon, ecstatic to have won with a tiny team in a year he did not have a full-time job.

Wheldon was killed five months later in a 15-car accident in the IndyCar season finale, and his presence has been felt at the speedway all month. He’s featured on the race-day ticket, his car has been on display, and owner Bryan Herta will drive it in a lap of honor before the race.

Fans have been asked to wear white sunglasses during tributes on the parade lap, Lap 26, and Lap 98, which recognize the numbers of his winning cars, and Wheldon’s wife, Susie, is here.

“He lived for that race,’’ she said. “If that was the only race that he could do in the year, then he would do it.

“I feel like it’s important for me to be there.’’

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