Andretti hoping his Indy 500 six-pack leads to victory lane

INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Andretti’s busiest month could turn into his best Indianapolis show.

He has four cars in the front three rows of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

Two of those drivers — the defending race champion, Alexander Rossi, and this year’s highest-profile rookie, Fernando Alonso — avoided getting sidetracked by sideshows.

Andretti’s own son, Marco, thrived despite taking on extra coaching duties this May. Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy 500 champion, posted the fastest qualifying average outside the nine-car pole shootout, and Japan’s Takuma Sato proved he could be a contender. On Monday, rookie Jack Harvey moved up the speed chart, too.

If these guys produce all the right numbers this weekend, Andretti Autosport will have the best six-pack of racers in 500 history.

“It’s been good because of the data we’ve been able to share and pass on, not only for someone like Marco or Ryan, but it’s been good for all the guys,” Michael Andretti said.

The six Andretti cars in the 33-car starting grid are the most by one team since Andy Evans started seven in 1996 with Team Scandia. Even for a team that regularly starts four cars, embarking on such an enormous challenge carries all sorts of potential pitfalls.

Finding sponsors and cars are the most glaring concerns, and Andretti said he never would have considered such a daunting feat if both hadn’t already been resolved. Finding crew members, spotters and strategists for all of the drivers isn’t easy, either.

“People are a huge problem because everyone in Indianapolis has a job right now,” said Michael Shank, co-owner of Harvey’s No. 50 car. “I have 22 to 25 guys in my shop, so it was only natural we could do it.”

Andretti needed the help to make it work.

But it was only a start.

Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull believes that to be successful running so many cars, a team must find the right blend of selfless personalities to mesh in Gasoline Alley. Above all else, it requires an extraordinary amount of organization and communication. Hull knows because he once had a five-car team in the 500.

“It is a lofty effort and it’s very difficult to get it right. It’s not going to be perfect,” he said. “It’s just kind of pinching each other every day, reminding each other of some little things so that you don’t keep repeating things. It’s being patient with the process.”

Andretti, with an assist from Shank and Bryan Herta, the co-owner of Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car, didn’t have to be too patient: From the moment the cars rolled onto the 2.5-mile oval, they were already fast.

Marco Andretti finished the first day atop the speed chart. He’ll start eighth Sunday, the middle of Row 3.

Hunter-Reay produced top-five laps in practice each of the first four days he turned laps and qualified 10th, the inside of Row 4.

Rossi and Sato, both former Formula One drivers, helped the two-time F1 champ make a quick transition from the familiar high-tech, road-course cars to the even faster cars on unfamiliar ovals. Rossi is starting from the third spot on the front row. Sato and Alonso qualified in the second row and will start fourth and fifth.

“From all the comments that arrived to me, the comments from them are very, very useful because they know how one car behaves and how the other car behaves and what they needed when they came here,” said Alonso, the Spaniard whose 500 debut has attracted wide attention. “I probably experienced more or less the same journey as them.”

The only real glitch over the past two weeks has been Harvey, a rookie from England.

He crashed early in practice because of a steering problem, later blew an engine and wound up qualifying 27th, the outside of Row 9. While he appreciates getting the opportunity to race again — and is thrilled to give Shank his 500 entry — he acknowledges it’s hard not to think some of the problems were preventable. So does Andretti.

“I think with the sixth car, there were some things we could have improved on,” Andretti said. “I think we could have done some better things on our side if we had it to do over again.”

Perhaps that will change if the team gets a second chance next May.

For now, though, Andretti and his six drivers are focused on one goal: Topping Sunday afternoon with a drive through victory lane.

“It is a big challenge for our team,” Andretti said. “There’s a lot, a lot of hours that go into organizing something like this and making it all happen and we’ve got to get it right.”

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