Rahal vs. Andretti would be epic

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INDIANAPOLIS -- No duel at the finish of Sunday's 98th Indianapolis 500 would resonate through the past, present and future of this storied event more than this:

An Andretti and a Rahal, wheel to wheel, from the white flag to the checkered.

Unlikely? Yes.

Possible? Oh, yes.

Delightful to envision? Wow.

And the nature of IndyCar racing, here and elsewhere in recent years, hints that, whatever the names involved, there'll be a duel or a multicar scramble at the end.

A shootout between Marco Andretti, 27, and Graham Rahal, 25, "would do more for this race than anybody else who's in this race," said Rahal, son of Bobby Rahal, who won this race as a driver in 1986 and as an owner in 2004 with Buddy Rice.

 

"I mean, Tony Kanaan is a very popular guy," young Rahal continued. "[Juan Pablo] Montoya, [Scott] Dixon, Helio [Castroneves] -- those guys are obviously very well known."

And Indy winners all:

Kanaan last year, in perhaps the most popular win here in this millennium, after 11 spirited tries and heartbreaking losses.

Montoya in 2000, in his only other appearance in the 500, although he's been back to Indy several times since then, driving in Formula One and NASCAR...

Dixon in 2008, and a force to be reckoned with in other years...

Castroneves, the only driver in this year's field who'll be going for a fourth win, now that Dario Franchitti will be an observer this time after recovering from career-ending injuries suffered this past fall.

"But," young Rahal said, "those two names ..."

Andretti and Rahal. Now that Foyt, Unser, Mears, Fittipaldi, Vukovich and Bettenhausen are names relegated to history, this year's field of 33 drivers just doesn't offer a more resounding pair than Andretti and Rahal.

To the mainstream public, that is.

Inside IndyCar, and inside the two families, it gets even better. Call them motor racing's Hatfields and McCoys.

Graham Rahal grew up watching his father make extra effort, and then some -- and then some more -- in his workout room, motivated by a picture on the wall, of Bobby Rahal and Michael Andretti, Marco's father, wheel to wheel in a race.

"The Rahals and Andrettis will always be like oil and water," Graham said. "That's just the way it's gonna be."

Even in talking about it -- or refusal to -- there's a stark contrast.

Are they rivals by heritage?

"I don't know," said Marco Andretti, his body language implying he didn't even want to dignify the question with an answer. "I don't approach a given race thinking about Graham Rahal. I just don't."

"When it comes down to a wheel-to-wheel battle, there's nobody I like to beat more than Marco," Rahal said.

Put another question, another way, about the Rahals to Marco Andretti -- that even considering the storied "Andretti Curse" here, the Rahals have suffered their share of heartbreaks, too.

And you get the same body language of annoyance, the same dismissive answer.

"I don't think about that at all," Marco said.

But that's the nature of the two families for decades here. The Andrettis are the oil, the Rahals the water.

If there's one word for the Andretti demeanor here through the decades, it is subdued. Marco's father, Michael, who wowed the crowds here arguably more than any other driver who never won the 500, always was subdued and often reticent going into this race.

Andretti words have always been softly spoken, even from Marco's more talkative Nonno Mario -- Italian for Grandpa Mario -- who has the family's only win here, in 1969, to show for all that all-out effort, all these years.

The Rahals are water: free-flowing, talking openly, with consistent candor, all these years. The last time they won here, in '04, co-owner David Letterman joined the winners' news conference. That's consistent with the verbal DNA of the team.

And always, the Rahals have had less to lose. When Bobby won in '86, he shattered the rap of being mainly a sports car racer riding business connections into Indy.

Since '69, the Andrettis have come here with the most to lose of anyone -- and have always lost the most.

Same thing this year. Graham will start 20th with his father's team "searching for speed" in his car, he admitted. Marco will start sixth in one of four Andretti Austosport team cars that are by consensus the class not only of this year's field but of the entire series for the past few years.

"Let's be honest," Graham said, as if that preface were necessary. "For me, the last couple of years have been tough. And Andretti as a team has been the dominant team."

Starting positions have meant less here in recent years than historically, largely thanks to technical rules that facilitate drafting and passing. Franchitti won from 16th on the grid in 2012, Kanaan from 12th last year.

Take the Rahals out of the conversation and Marco Andretti will address the Andretti Curse -- at least this year's prospective nightmare in it.

"I can't believe this is my ninth year already," he said. That's how long the curse has had to weigh on him personally.

"I'm not thinking about the curse 24/7, but what I am having a nightmare about is the right position to be in come the end of the race.

"Because lately that's changed. Back in the day it was one or two, and at the max it was three, players at the end of the race. And now it's five or six."

So, with the scrambling in the draft, "and the element of yellows involved" to bunch up the field, "Where do you want to be in the closing laps?"

"Last year I thought we were in an ideal position and it ended up biting us," with Kanaan seizing the lead on a restart and cruising to victory under caution. Marco finished fourth.

"This year, do you want to lead and then have the restart with four guys [who are] gonna pass you? So that's been the recurring nightmare for me."

On the roulette wheel driven by drafts and restarts, Andretti and Rahal have as good a shot at being around at the end as anybody.

Could the resounding duel actually happen?

"For sure," Rahal said. "Anything can happen at any point. You look at the way things have gone. In 2011 I started 29th. That was my worst starting spot. ... And I ended up finishing third."

Where 500 miles are routine in NASCAR, in the more precise and delicate form of IndyCar racing, Rahal said, "Five hundred miles is a long. Long. Time."

And then, "To have Marco and I fighting it out at the end of the thing -- I guarantee you, there'd be a lot of people on their feet."

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