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Power of Indy

Jonathan Baum
Yahoo Sports

A driver can hit the ground in Indianapolis with hope and hype, with momentum and expectations, only to leave with frustration and disappointment.

A driver also can head to the Brickyard with little more than a dream, only to have that dream come true with at least a little taste of glory, if not milk.

Indy is funny that way.

The Greatest Spectacle in Racing can make a career in just one day, or it can continue a curse.

It also can vault drivers into stardom.

That's exactly what the 2006 Indianapolis 500 did – and not just for the winner.

For Sam Hornish Jr., his dramatic win at Indy on Sunday did more than immortalize him on a famous trophy. It also legitimized a terrific open wheel career – though many would argue that unnecessary.

Hornish already was a two-time IRL champion, but few outside of racing (read: your general sports fan) even knew who Hornish was.

Something was missing.

And Hornish knew what.

The 26-year-old Ohioan acknowledged that team own Roger Penske wants a championship, but Hornish admitted that all he cared about was winning the Indy 500. Even if it meant not winning another championship. Even if it meant not winning another race all year.

It was all about Indy.

The Brickyard had bested Hornish over and over, sometimes in embarrassing fashion, only adding the need for him to finally strike back.

And Sunday, he did – in dramatic, stunning fashion, no less. Hornish rebounded from a pit disaster and penalty that could have cost him the race (Indy again was toying with him) and got back to the front with just a few laps to go.

He made quick work of Michael Andretti and then charged past Marco Andretti just before the start/finish line to earn himself that swig of milk – and the attention and adoration that comes with it.

"To go out there and to just dream of someday coming here and being able to race is one thing, being able to realize that goal," Hornish told SportsTicker. "I remember how happy I was the first time I came here. Everything that I've done as far as being an IndyCar driver since then was bonus. I never dreamed of winning the Indy 500 until I came here for the first time."

The win puts Hornish on the mainstream sports map and immortalizes him among those who have conquered the most famous race in the world.

"As far as my professional career goes, [it's] is the best day that I'll ever have."

Marco Andretti hopes Sunday perhaps is no better than the second-best day he'll ever have.

The young, 19-year-old man Hornish beat to the line was a bit frustrated. Andretti made it clear that despite his young age and inexperience at Indy, he wanted to win and was too frustrated even to think about the "what-ifs" after Hornish stormed by to edge him at the line.

"Second place is nothing,'' Marco told the AP. "You gotta take advantage of every shot. How many times did my dad finish second? He never won it and neither did I."

A win for his dad, Michael Andretti, would have made for a whole different story. Michael Andretti also is missing that Indy 500 win from his resume, but his accomplishments from a different era of American open wheel racing speak for themselves – not to mention his Indy win last year as a team owner.

As for Marco, a win – combined with his age and his last name – would have made him an instant star. But coming so close to victory before finishing second essentially did the same thing.

Marco Andretti got plenty of attention during the month, and he handled it more or less as well as one would expect a 19-year-old would. And while he did perform extremely well in a half-dozen Pro Series events last year (winning three of them), some believed Andretti was over his head and didn't belong in the Indy field.

Driving a good car, but not one that was close to as strong as the Penske or Ganassi machines, Andretti showed otherwise on Sunday.

He proved he belonged, that he could succeed at Indy.

He proved he belongs in the spotlight, that he merits it.

And suddenly, he's on his way to being known simply as Marco.

But Marco Andretti isn't alone in having to justify the attention he gets or being known by just his first name.

The other driver that fits the bill, of course, is Danica.

Last year's Indy 500 put Danica Patrick on the map, as her fast speeds, good looks and laps led at Indy kicked Danicamania into full gear.

She did become the first woman to lead the Indy 500 before finishing fourth, but she also made some mistakes and dodged some bullets on the way.

In some respects, for as well as she did, Patrick was a little lucky last year.

Not so in 2006.

Patrick drove a strong race from start to finish and, if anything, was plagued by bad luck that might have cost her several finishing positions.

Patrick ultimately crossed the line eighth, but she drove a much better race than a year before.

"I drove a clean race. I didn't make any mistakes. The team didn't make any mistakes," Patrick told the AP. "From last year to this year was a huge improvement.''

All day Sunday, as it does every year, Indy picked apart the drivers who might not belong.

But this year, Patrick clearly, emphatically showed she is not in that group.

While past winners of the race were taking each other out, Patrick quietly moved through the field and put herself in position for a good finish.

"From a driving standpoint, I did much better. That's what you're striving for,'' she said.

Despite being four spots worse this year, Patrick's performance should go a long way toward silencing those who believe she only gets attention because of her gender.

Still, Patrick has yet to win a race. Maybe that's what it will take to show she belongs, and maybe that's fair.

And that seems to be just fine with her.

"When I get the right car, I'm going to win."

Only Hornish won on Sunday. But all three of these drivers secured their places in the spotlight.