Andretti anxious to return to track

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   BRISTOL - A solid racing resume and piloting one of the best looking cars at this year's Daytona 500 hasn't been enough to keep John Andretti racing weekly in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series this season.
   The process of not being able to acquire the necessary sponsorship to run the 2004 campaign has been disappointing to both Andretti and the No. 1 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. team he's scheduled to drive for.
   "It looked like a few weeks ago we had something lined up," said Andretti. "I think we are pretty close, but being close and being there are two different things. I enjoy racing and hopefully I can restart my racing career."
   Disappointing to Andretti was missing this past weekend's event at Bristol, a place where he ran second in 2001.
   "It felt like we got one taken away from us," said Andretti. "We ran here well the year before too. The majority of time you get crashed here. I like racing Bristol and I like this track."
   The team has been eyeing upcoming events at Martinsville and Talladega as places to make a possible return to the series. It makes sense in that Andretti scored his last Cup win at Martinsville in 1999 and DEI won last fall's Talladega race with driver Michael Waltrip.
   "That is a good target to get back," said the nephew of Mario Andretti. "After that is Talladega, which is obviously strong for DEI. We go to other places and I feel we can run good anywhere. We have to be prepared to run good. To say we are going to be good is not enough. You want to give everything you have. I think that will come out."
   Andretti, who has two wins on the Nextel Cup circuit, has one of the most varied backgrounds in all of American motorsports. He won on the CART Champ Car circuit before coming to NASCAR and is a former winner in the 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race. He also ventured in the NHRA drag racing arena and finished in the Top Fuel semifinals in his first ever race.
   He feels at home in NASCAR, but would not rule out moving to another racing series, in particular the Indy Racing League if that was the opportunity presented to him.
   "I love being down here and I love the (Nextel Cup) Series, but I love driving more than I do watching," said Andretti. "The Indy 500 is a huge race and it's been a part of my life since I was a little kid. I hope something can come together where I can run it again.
   "My last race there in 1994 we ran good and the year before we had an exceptionally strong car. A.J. Foyt wasn't up for me to do the double. It was harder then to do it than it is now."
   Andretti, a former pole winner for Darlington's Southern 500, feels moving back to the faster IRL cars wouldn't be that hard if he was called on to do so.
   "It took Tony (Stewart) about two laps to get back to speed after he had been out of a Indy car for a couple of years," said Andretti. "It should only take me about three. You have to make some adjustments, but it's like an old pair of shoes. They might fit a little differently, but you get used to them."
   The driver says that if no opportunity comes along this season, it's not the end of the world. He says he's learned that time with his family is just as valuable as racing.
   "I can go out and go to my son's soccer games and have fun," said Andretti. "I enjoy that. I enjoy having an extension of my life, instead of it being all about me."
   When he is seeing a car owner, the Bethlehem, Pa. native who grew up in the nearby town of Nazareth, doesn't try to make a point of why they should hire him over another particular driver.
   "I never go in trying to prove a case for myself," said Andretti, now a North Carolina resident. "I go in and talk to a team about what they are doing and where I think I would fit into the organization, where I might be able to benefit them. I think there is a lot to making things work.
   "There are drivers who think it's all about them and there are drivers who are team-oriented. Those are the guys who grow and get stronger. I know I am one of those guys who work well with other people and will try something new."
   It's been apparent with the way he interacts with fellow DEI racers Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Michael Waltrip, that Andretti practices what he was preaching about being a team player.
   "They are easy to form friendships with," said Andretti. "They're good guys and easy to get along with. As much as they could act like they are a lot more than what they do, they're very normal. I like being around them. It doesn't matter what somebody can do for me; if I don't like someone, I don't like them. I do like Junior and I do like Michael."