Friday, February 25, 2011

Frenetic Friday -- Row 3

The debate is finally over, Row 3 is finally in the field. Just as a review, here's a recap of my first two rows, linked in the event anyone wants to re-read them several times for fun.

Row 1: Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser

Row 2: Bill Vukovich, Bobby Unser, Wilbur Shaw

As I mentioned in my recent Johnny Rutherford post, the further back you go in the field, the harder it is to pick drivers. Sure, wins mean a lot, but so do other factors. Those will come into play more and more as we move along.

But for now, here we go:

Inside Row 3: Mario Andretti

The only one -- 1969
Here is the first example of "other factors" moving a driver up the grid. Though Mario only had one win (1969) in 29 starts and only finished the race on the lead lap five times, his career at Indy could be called dominant. He captured the pole three times as part of eight front-row starts and led 556 of the 3,090 laps he completed, which means he led 18 percent of the laps he ever drove at the Speedway.

Mario led more than 100 laps in a race three times, and led a race-high 72 laps in 1993 when he was 53 years old. Of course, no discussion is complete without talking about the "Andretti curse", as for years Mario would have a good car before limping to the pits with a mechanical issue as Tom Carnegie uttered one of his famous phrases..."Mario is slowing down".

That was never more heartbreaking than in 1987 when he lead 170 of the first 177 laps and had more than a lap on second place Roberto Guerrero and two laps on eventual winner Unser before slowing with an electrical problem. It's too bad Mario isn't driving now, because in the current IndyCar era of drivers piloting the most-unbreakable-cars-ever-built, he would be close to unbeatable at Indy.

Middle Row 3: Johnny Rutherford

As I stated, I wasn't sure about J.R. for a while because his 24-year career at Indy could be broken down into three parts. From 1963-72 he never finished better than 18th, followed by a stretch (1973-81) where he won the race and the pole three times apiece, finished second once (1975) to go along with two other top-10 placings. From there until his final race in 1988 he did have three more top-10s, but never led a lap and wasn't a factor. What pushes J.R. up this far in the field is the fact that for close to 10 years, he was a guy that everyone had to make sure they knew where he was on the track.

Outside Row 3: Emerson Fittipaldi

The Emmo Era at Indy lasted just 11 starts, as it was part of a ressurection of a career that had included two Formula 1 world titles in the 1970s. He didn't even begin competing in the 500 until 1984 when he was 37, but had a run that saw him post two wins (1989, 1993) a pole (1990) and four top-5 finishes. He arguably could have won two more, as he had the field covered in 1990 before suffering tire issues, then crashed with almost a one-lap lead with just 17 laps to go in 1994. That was part of Emmo's flair for the dramatic, as his battle with Al Unser Jr. in 1989 is one of the best late-race duels in history, and his 1993 win came after passing race favorite Nigel Mansell on a restart with 16 laps to go. Though he typically pushed his car and loved to run up front, evidenced by leading an amazing 505 of his 1,785 laps in competition, his drive in 1993 was brilliant, as he almost fell a lap down and patiently worked on his car and up through the field, leading only the last 16 of the race to beat one of the deeper fields ever assembled.

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