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MARIO ANDRETTI RACES IN HIS LAST INDY TODAY

SHARE MARIO ANDRETTI RACES IN HIS LAST INDY TODAY

The tempestuous romance between the often stone-cold Indianapolis Motor Speedway and one of the suitors she has tormented the most over the years will end today.

Jilted, jostled and left for junk on many occasions, Mario Andretti will give the old Brickyard bat her last opportunity at reconciliation in Sunday's 78th running of the Indy 500.Then he's moving out. She can keep the house. He gets the car.

It's just another stop on Andretti's Arrivederci Tour as he motors toward retirement at the end of the season, but it's the only venue that often unfairly is used to measure a racer's ability and weigh his success.

If the Greatest Spectacle in Racing were the only criterion by which Andretti, 54, could be calculated, he'd be considered moderately unsuccessful. Factoring in poor luck would save him from the unsatisfactory category.

The second winningest driver in Indy-car history has won only once at Indy in 28 attempts, that being in 1969 in a car that over the years he would consider the least likely of any to find its way to Victory Lane.

Andretti recalled when he was a guest on the "Tonight Show" in 1965 after he finished third in the Indy 500, was named the race's rookie of the year, and then went on to win the national championship in as a 25-year-old rookie.

When he was introduced on the show, there was no mention that he was the national champion, just his Indy exploits.

"I thought, well, that's bull," Andretti said. "If rookie of the year at Indianapolis is more important than winning the national championship, then something is wrong. You can't tell me that some of the drivers that haven't won this thing as many times can't drive as well as guys who have won it four or five times. This place is not the ultimate yardstick.

"But if you win here you have a shot at the hall of fame, you have a shot at all of that. If you don't, you don't. So you're into half-obscurity, if you will."

But bitterness isn't part of the parting. Andretti will leave in peace because he says he's never been at war with the 2-mile oval of his agony. The two most famous four-word pronouncements at Indy every year are, "Gentlemen, start your engines" and "Mario is slowing down."

He's finished second twice (1985, 1981). But he's failed to finish 20 Indy 500s, for reasons ranging from lost wheels to lost engines to lost cars due to accidents. But never lost confidence.

Andretti has also won the pole three times and has qualified on the front row eight times, including three of the last four years. He'll start from the outside of the third row today.

"The disappointments are when you fall out while leading, when you had a real chance," Andretti said. "There have been a lot of could-have-beens, but you didn't have a chance to really show it. Every negative has a positive. The positive is that at least I was a factor. If you know you've been a factor, you believe if it isn't going to happen today, maybe it will tomorrow."

The should-have-been was in 1981, when legislative action by a United States Auto Club three-man panel stripped Andretti of what he thought was his second victory. Andretti crossed the finish line second behind Bobby Unser that May day, but was posted as the winner the following morning due to a one-lap penalty to Unser for passing under the yellow.

Five months later Unser's infraction was changed to a $40,000 fine, and Andretti returned to second.

"Jerry Grant and Poncho Carter were penalized and moved back a lap, but they hadn't won the race," Andretti said. "I guess the rulebook only applied to second place. They decided a lap penalty would be too severe so they fined Bobby $40,000. I'll take a $40,000 fine anytime (if it means a victory in the race)."

He is the only man ever to win the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 (1967) the Formula One world championship (1978) and the 12 Hours of Sebring (1967, `69, `84). He has also won four Indy-car national championships (1965, `66, `69, `84). His 52 Indy-Car wins are second on the all-time list, to A.J. Foyt's 67. He has won 12 Formula One races, including six during his world championship season.

Asked what he will miss most about the Brickyard, Andretti stared into space, but didn't hesitate.

"Everything."