INDIANAPOLIS – Roger Penske has won more Indianapolis 500 poles and races than any owner in history.
Yet his team still runs into its share of bad luck.
A year ago at Indy, Will Power was collected in the race's first crash and a bouncing wheel wound up hitting the car of his teammate, Helio Castroneves. In an instant, the chances of two of Team Penske's three drivers winning the race took a major hit.
The year before, Power left the pits without a left rear tire, forcing him back to pit row. Penske's most competitive driver that year, Ryan Briscoe, wound up hitting the wall with 42 laps left when Townsend Bell didn't see the car next to him.
"Last year was a little frustrating because they were changing the rules on the turbo in midseason and we could have been much better. The year before, we didn't quite get it right, so it was a kick in the butt," said Castroneves, the first foreign-born three-time Indy 500 winner. "It's never easy here."
At Indy, perfection is usually rewarded with a trip to Victory Lane. Anything less might end with a trip back to Gasoline Alley.
Nobody knows that better than Penske, whose pursuit of perfection and uniformity changed IndyCar racing forever. His teams routinely practice pit stops and emphasize the need to do well in Indy's annual Carb Day pit-stop competition (and they did this year, with Castroneves' team winning), understanding that if they do well then, they should do well on race day. The rest of the IndyCar teams have followed suit.
Even Team Penske makes mistakes, though. In 1995, his team tried everything to get its cars into the starting grid. When nothing worked, Penske headed home and didn't return until 2001, when Castroneves won the race. And it's not any easier now. Over the last three years, Penske drivers have been victimized by botched pit stops, crashes and miscues, making the once unbeatable team look fallible.
"These days it's so tough to get everything right because if you want to be quick you've got to be wide open, for the most part," Power said before qualifying sixth, the outside of Row 2. "This year, there are 24 girls or guys who could win this race, could win any race."
The risks on Indy's 2.5-mile oval are much greater. There are four distinct turns, and track conditions can change at any whim Mother Nature throws out — hot or cold temperatures, windy or still conditions and especially moisture. Thirty-three drivers must contend with those dangers for three to 3½ hours at speeds regularly exceeding 215 mph and then still avoid any trouble in the pits or on the track.
Two years ago, after Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon both ran out of fuel in qualifying, they miscalculated the fuel consumption on race day. Franchitti wound up fading to 12th as he tried to save fuel, while Dixon wound up fifth after stopping for a late splash of fuel. Both drivers couldn't believe their bad luck.
But nobody has had more consternation than the Andrettis.
Mario, the family patriarch, won the 500 in 1969 and never made it back. He retired after the 1994 season with a long list of reasons for his failures — everything from the pre-race crash in 1982 to a series of mechanical problems to the 1981 disputed finish, a race originally awarded to Bobby Unser, then handed to Andretti the next day before it was given back to Unser.
The Andretti curse didn't end with Mario. His son Michael led more laps than any other Indy non-winner (431) and the CART-IndyCar split cost Michael five more chances to win the 500 during the prime of his career. Mario's son finally made it to Victory Lane in 2005 as a team owner, thanks to the first Indy win for the late Dan Wheldon.
Now 26-year-old Marco is contending with the family demons. As a rookie in 2006, he was passed by Sam Hornish Jr. just before the finish line, leaving the youngest Andretti on the wrong side of another close finish. In six starts since then, Marco has qualified in the top 10 five times, finished third twice and ninth in 2011.
On Sunday, he'll start third, the outside of Indy's coveted front row still trying to get a victory that has eluded five Andretti drivers.
"I look at Indy as a championship in itself," Marco Andretti said. "Everything seems nicer here this year, but a lot can happen throughout the month. It's a very humbling business because as soon as you think things are going well, you roll out the next day and everything's different."
Race day is the same way. Anything from spectacular crashes to loose lug nuts can instantly turn a good day bad.
"That's why everyone says it's the toughest race to win," said Oriol Servia, who will start 13th, the inside of Row 5 on Sunday. "There are about seven pit stops and one thing goes wrong in there and you've got a loose part. It's hard because there are 33 cars on the track and there's debris on the track on many occasions, so most people won't get it right. Only one will."
Perhaps nobody will get it exactly right Sunday, but the lucky ones who do will be in contention at the end.
"Here, it's 500 miles so there are more than can go right," Castroneves said as he prepares to start from the No. 8 spot, the middle of Row 3. "I'm a believer that this team will do everything right."