If you were to look at an overall results listing for the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series, you would see that Andretti Autosport has won 3 out of 13 events so far. Whereas two of Chip Ganassi’s drivers have taken all of his victories, and Penske’s wins are all by Will Power. Andretti has preferred to "change it up," sending 3 different drivers to victory circle.
Mike Conway started it off back in the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix, blasting past the competition to dominate the closing laps. Marco Andretti wowed the fans at Iowa, emerging victorious from an all-out duel with Tony Kanaan. Most recently, Ryan Hunter-Reay won in a contested, chaotic finish at New Hampshire in the MoveThatBlock.com Indy 225.
Really, in the successes of those three different drivers comes the puzzling, inconsistent aspect to the team’s overall success. Andretti’s drivers have looked amazingly racy one moment, yet plod along towards the back of the field the next, or worse, smash up some carbon fiber in on-track incidents.
Perhaps nothing this season was more illustrative of their mixed success this year than the Centennial Indianapolis 500. All of their cars struggled in qualifying, with Marco and Danica Patrick squeezing in at the last moment. Ryan Hunter-Reay was bumped by his own teammate, and raced only as the replacement for Bruno Junqueira. Conway, barely a month removed from winning at Long Beach, never did find the speed to make the 500 field.
Hunter-Reay was considered by many as ready for a breakout year. Instead, he suffered disappointment after disappointment through the first half of the reason. Through Milwaukee, he garnered only a single Top 10 (P9 in the second Texas race). Even when he was in a strong position, such as late in the race at Long Beach, mechanical failures doomed him. Even after the Canadian swing when he was given probation for on-track contact and incidents, he’s still got a win and two additional podiums in his last four races. He’s been the most consistent of the Andretti drivers over the last few events.
Marco Andretti has also seen his share of uneven fortunes this year. He blows everyone away at Iowa, routinely places well after qualifying horribly (see: Indy), but can have a race like the Streets of St. Petersburg (qualifies well, crashes out on the first lap). Some of it is racing luck, sure, but he continues to leave us tantalized at his talent one race, and puzzled by an early exit the next.
Even Danica Patrick has not been immune. Although her record streak of no DNF (Did Not Finish) results is intact, the rollercoaster continues here. After a P7 at Long Beach, it was a P23 at Sao Paolo. She qualified P25 at Indy, only to snag another Top 10 after leading late. The Canadian races were split, with Toronto P19, Edmonton a P9. Danica’s finishing races, but precisely where she finishes remains anyone’s guess.
Perhaps no driver, though, showcases AA's rollercoaster of a season more than Mike Conway. He had early DNFs in the first two races of the year, then finished first at Long Beach. He followed it up with a nice P6 at Sao Paolo, but would not again crack the Top 10 until Edmonton. He’s gone from the highest highs to the loweest lows. One minute he’s a threat to win, the next his car is missing pieces as it rolls off-track.
Basically, if you were to chart Andretti driver performance this season, it just might look like our up-and-down stock market graph. Like the stock market, they’re also volatile, hard to predict, and a total puzzler to the average person on the street.
If you were to ask the reason for this inconsistency, you might get a dozen different answers from fans. Mario Andretti himself has commented on the inconsistency from the team, but there doesn’t seem to be a single answer. It might be understandable if all cars missed on setup and simply suffered as a group, but that isn’t the case. In the same week one Andretti driver finishes near the top, another driver might be tailing towards the end of the field.
Maybe one day soon the stars will align, all four Andretti Autosport cars will hit that right groove at the same time, and they’ll sweep positions 1-4 in a race. For now, in any given week you get the feeling someone from Andretti will show up in the front of the field, but you’re just not quite sure who it will be. It makes things both exciting and frustrating for fans. This team can charge to the front in any given week or cruelly disappear at just the wrong moment. (It’s also frustrating for a fantasy racing owner, who have come to see Andretti Autosport as largely a feast-or-famine type of proposition).
One thing is for sure: INDYCAR is a team sport. Crew, driver, engineering—any part of the team might cause a showing to be better or worse from week to week. Andretti Autosport has all the pieces to be a top-tier team; their victories this season (along with the near-misses) prove that. If they can find that consistency for all their cars in the last third of the season, a unified assault on the points standings is not out of the question. If not, the carousel will continue, and we’ll wait to see which Andretti Autosport car shows up to wow us this week.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate.