He's back

Jonathan Baum

Michael Andretti is coming back.

Told you so.

After his bitterly disappointing "final" Indy 500 run back in 2003 I predicted Andretti wouldn't be able to keep himself away.

(Of course, I also predicted that if he did manage to avoid the cockpit for '04 and '05 that he'd probably stay out for good, so what do I know?)

When he hung up the driver's suit 2½ years ago, Andretti knew he still had the talent. Rather, it was the extreme dedication and focus necessary to stay physically and mentally prepared to race that he didn't want to maintain.

"About coming back – everyone's asking me that," Andretti said back in '03. "I'll never say 'never' because you can't say that. But, I wouldn't put any money on it. The odds are highly, highly against it."

Besides, being a car owner was plenty enough to keep him busy.

"Most drivers when they retire, most athletes when they retire, don't have a backup plan when they get out," he said. "Three or four months later they are like, 'Well, what am I going to do? I'm bored.' I'm not going to have that. I'm going to be very busy, I'm going to have something to satisfy my competitive urges, still, with the team. I'm still going to get the old adrenaline up with the team. And, so, I really don't see it happening."

Andretti led laps in the '03 Indy 500 but was knocked out by mechanical failure, once again falling short, as he had every other time, of victory.

"I have no regrets about anything. My new legacy is to win 20 of these things as an owner."

Dan Wheldon won this year's Indy 500 in one of Andretti's cars. One down, 19 to go.

Long before Wheldon's win, one of Andretti's own drivers told me Andretti was enjoying life as a team owner and that he couldn't imagine Andretti returning to the cockpit.

But Wheldon left the team to join Chip Ganassi Racing for '06, leaving Andretti with a hole in his lineup – and a couple of opportunities.

"Ever since [Wheldon left] I've been very pumped about it, very excited," Andretti told the AP. "Then I thought, heck, what a neat idea that I would be driving with Marco."

Marco Andretti, Michael's son, will be Wheldon's full-time replacement, while Michael will suit up just for Indianapolis. But Michael Andretti's return – and the fact that he'll be competing in the world's most famous race alongside his son – is great news for the IRL, which should see the announcement as an early holiday present.

The Champ Car-IRL open wheel war is well documented, and while one side might gain on the other in any given year, the overall state of open wheel in North America could and should be much, much better.

Will Michael Andretti running one race change all that? No. But it can't hurt.

For IndyCar fans, Andretti's return is nice, but these fans will watch regardless. No, where Andretti helps is with the general sports fan – the same fan that embraced Danica Patrick.

Andretti taking another shot at a chug of milk won't have the same impact as DanicaMania, but it's still a nice storyline – and that's exactly what the IRL needs. Especially in May.

Defending 500 winner and series champ Wheldon going up against former owner Andretti is a compelling angle within the sport, and really, there are plenty of those. But for better or worse, it takes something more to grab more mainstream headlines.

It takes Danica. And maybe, it takes an Andretti.

But will Andretti's return make an impact outside of racing? Will the fact that Michael Andretti will race the 500 with his son just like Mario Andretti did with Michael make the back pages? That remains to be seen. But really, it certainly can't hurt.

Is it realistic to think, however, that Andretti really can steal the attention of the sports world (and, of course, the racing world, which also will have its eyes on Charlotte) next Memorial Day weekend by finally winning the Indy 500? He says he thinks this could be one of his best chances. Really, that might have been this past season before Honda became the IRL's sole engine supplier, greatly lessening (but not eliminating) the powerplant advantage Andretti-Green's Honda-powered rides had.

But he'll still have a great car. And if he's able to shake off the rust, avoid mechanical woes and outduel and outlast 32 other drivers, Andretti not only will fulfill his own lifelong dream, he'll also give the IRL the best present it could have asked for.

Well, maybe second best. There's always Danica.