INDIANAPOLIS – Michael Andretti's three drivers go into the Indianapolis 500 with strong chances to win. Yet there was still talk Friday about the driver who is no longer with the team: Danica Patrick.
The drivers say they are working like teammates again. Though nobody on Andretti Autosport has publicly cited Patrick's departure to NASCAR as the sole reason for the change, the team clearly has a new zest for racing.
"I don't know about friction, but there wasn't a lot of trust and things like that and when it isn't happening it's all forced and you can't force those things to happen," the team owner said after Friday's final practice for Sunday's Indianapolis 500. "The trust is there. They figure it you give something to one, the other will give something to you. That's what the old regime had back in 2005 and we've been looking for that ever since."
Patrick joined the team in 2007 but left in part because she wanted a fresh start in a new series. On Thursday at Charlotte, Patrick told reporters that she watched last weekend's Indy qualifying.
"I didn't feel like I wanted to be there," she said. "I'm very pleased that I'm in NASCAR. I'm very happy, I'm having a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to a different challenge this weekend."
Patrick's departure was the biggest change since last season when Andretti's team employed four full-time drivers — his son, Marco, the soft-spoken Mike Conway, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Patrick.
Marco Andretti, Conway and Hunter-Reay reached Victory Lane in 2011 while Patrick produced one top-five finish in 17 starts and drew more attention for her struggles than her successes.
James Hinchcliffe replaced Patrick in the Andretti lineup and Conway was left without a job when the team decided to run only three full-time cars .The three regular drivers qualified second, third and fourth for Sunday's race — a stark contrast to the past two years when Michael Andretti's team was still trying to get drivers in the race on Bump Day.
"Yeah, it's a complete 180," Hinchcliffe said. "I think it says a lot about this team. ... After what happened last year, man, they lost a lot of sleep over it and it stung them and it still does. They were really, really focused on not letting that happen again."
Marco Andretti declined to cite any specific drivers for the problems, but he noted there is more teamwork.
"That's when you know that you're dealing with real people, when you're competing against your own people for the pole and not playing games behind people's backs," he said. "Now am I going to throw someone under the bus? No."
Last year, when rain threatened to keep Patrick from making a Bump Day qualifying attempt in her final Indy appearance, some fans even acknowledged they enjoyed watching Patrick fume as she sat on pit road, the cockpit covered with an umbrella.
Patrick's former teammates won't go that far.
"I don't know about games, but I know we are one tight-knit group of drivers who all want to win races," Hunter-Reay said. "We get along off the track. We don't let egos get in the way. We've started making progress and we've been able to work as a group."
Hunter-Reay quickly pointed out his comment was not intended as a shot at Patrick.
"I had no direct issue with her, I just knew we worked closely with her," Hunter-Reay said. "It's not that we weren't going backward, we were just not going forward."
That's not the case now. Hinchcliffe was one of the favorites to win the pole, missing by .003 mph, the closest pole battle in 500 history, and Marco Andretti goes into race day as one of the favorites after having one of the fastest cars at the speedway all month.
"You always struggle for that camaraderie. When you have it, you have it," Michael Andretti said. "You either have it or you don't."