Marco Andretti saw the tweets that feigned surprise at the two-year contract extension he signed with his father's race team.

He figured that was going to be the reaction when he agreed to return to Andretti Autosport for a ninth season. When you drive for your dad, everybody thinks you've got it pretty easy.

But Andretti insisted he has to earn his place in the lineup and he can't stay with the organization if his car isn't sponsored. And before signing this latest extension, he looked around the IndyCar paddock to see what else might be out there. In the end, the No. 25 team with sponsorship from Dr Pepper Snapple Group was the best opportunity.

"Most of the comments were, 'Big surprise, he stayed there,'" Andretti said. "But it's one of the best teams. Why wouldn't I? I'm honored they want me back as well. I wouldn't be here if I didn't earn it."

Andretti earned it this year, completing a total turnaround from the worst season of his career to put together the best since he came to IndyCar in 2006.

He was 15th in points with just one podium a year ago. After dedicating himself during the offseason — he worked with a driver coach in Europe and recaptured his passion for racing — Andretti goes into Saturday night's finale ranked a career-best fifth in the standings with two podiums and a career-best two poles.

Michael Andretti understands it can be difficult for his son from a perception standpoint, "It's got to be tough because everybody thinks he's there because of me," he said. But he believes his son has meshed with his organization and shouldn't just leave to prove a point to outsiders.

"It all depends on what the team was. If he would go to a team that was not as good, then I don't think it would be good for him," Michael Andretti said. "But if Roger Penske comes and talks to him, then he should talk to him. Would I be upset? No. Maybe in some ways it would be good for him. But I think right now, he's become a big part of the team here. Once he hits his stride, it will really pay off."

In some ways, it already has paid off. Marco's confidence is so much higher than it was a year ago, and he's far more comfortable with his place in the series.

"I am very hard on myself. Being in fifth in the last race is definitely better than last year, but I wanted to be in the show," he said. "But for the first time in my career, I can taste it and actually say that I believe I can be champion."

His father agrees.

"A lot of it has been inner soul searching for him," Michael Andretti said. "The team has helped, finding where he was weak, and he worked on it and did a really good job. Is he there? No. And he knows it. But he made great strides and if he makes that same stride again he's going to be a contender next year.

"I'm very proud of him. This year, if brakes go a little different, he's battling for the championship."