INDIANAPOLIS — Fresh off one of the biggest moments of his career, Marco Andretti headed to St. Elmo’s Steakhouse for a modest celebration.

Bryan Herta, the consigliere in his ears on race days, sat on his right. Marta, his wife of nearly three years, was on his left. Andretti was quiet, as he generally is in public, soaking up his time in the spotlight. It’s never been his turn. He is always at someone else’s party.

This one was clearly for him. Another diner at the Indianapolis landmark said, “Go get `em Marco” as he passed by the table. Sage Karam, like Andretti a Pennsylvania-raised racer, led guests as they raised a glass to Andretti for “laying down a fat one.” That’s what the late Dan Wheldon said, according to Andretti, to describe a huge lap around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Andretti had done just that, seizing the first Indianapolis 500 pole in 33 years for motorsports’ most famous family by bumping five-time series champion Scott Dixon on the final run of the day.

It was a glorious moment and a nail-biting test of Andretti’s ability to close the deal. His car was consistently the best in buildup to qualifying, but Andretti needed to summon the nerve to push his car to its very limit Sunday. At stake was the first Andretti pole since his grandfather Mario won his last in 1987, when Marco was just two months old.

He’s still got to actually win the race. But earning the right to lead the field to green in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is a resume highlight all by itself — and for Andretti, it is a defining moment. He is under constant scrutiny for his failure to find success — in the IndyCar Series and, even worse, at the speedway itself.

This is the only race that really matters to the Andretti family and the organization is loaded this year. Four Andretti cars made the fast nine shootout Sunday and they were the clear contenders to win the pole. One by one, they failed to replicate the speed the team knows is there in the cars and then suddenly there was Dixon atop the leaderboard.

Andretti was the final driver on the track. It was hot and a slight wind swirled around the empty speedway, conditions that should have slowed his effort.

With a confidence he has struggled to show in recent years, Andretti ripped four laps around the 2.5-mile oval — wide-open on the gas, fast and fearless in pursuit of his own moment of glory at Indy.

“On the last lap, I knew it was either all or nothing,” Andretti told The Associated Press on Monday at the speedway in the shadow of its Pagoda. “I was either not going to finish or the run was going to be very good. I had to dig deep for that, reach for the next level.”

His run was wildly celebrated by his fellow competitors; even Dixon said he was rooting for Andretti.

“He’s such a great guy and a good friend,” Dixon said. “To see him get a pole position at Indianapolis — I know what that means to him and especially his family.”

The speedway is the Andretti family playground. Mario Andretti won the Indy 500 only once, in 1969, and five Andrettis are a combined 1-for-74 when it comes to winning the most famous race on the IndyCar calendar, leading to the notorious “Andretti Curse” label.

“We don’t believe in it as a family,” he told AP. “We’ve been really blessed around here and we are unscathed as far as being in race cars. This is a dangerous thing we do and we are all healthy. It’s hard to say we’re cursed. This place can bury your confidence and it can also make you.”

Now 33, Marco has been at Indy his whole life and his favourite memories, he said, were days spent at the old Speedway Motel turning laps on the balcony on a toy car as his grandfather, father, uncle and cousin fine-tuned their race cars.

He wants nothing more than to break that so-called curse, which began for him as a rookie in 2006 when Sam Hornish Jr. passed him right before the finish line. Marco finished second, his father Michael finished third and it was the first of 14 consecutive years of Indy 500 heartbreak for Marco.

He said the race that hurts the most was actually last year when he ran a tribute 50th anniversary paint scheme of his grandfather’s win, a time-consuming effort that his sister tirelessly put together. Radical changes made to his car were a disaster and he finished 26th, his worst finish in 10 years.

“It was totally embarrassing,” Andretti said. “It’s one of those times where I just wanted to crawl under a rock.”

Andretti recognizes that his statistics — two wins in 240 starts over 15 seasons, his last victory way back in 2011 — open him to criticism. Fans have accused him of keeping his job only because his dad owns the team and suggested he’s not worthy of his seat.

It used to bother him. But Andretti has grown up in this series; he was just 19 his rookie year and teammates with series greats Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Herta, who now calls his races. He has settled into the Pennsylvania home where he grew up, next door to his beloved grandfather. He’s content being Marco Andretti and has stopped worrying about the chatter.

Being a favourite to win the race that means everything to his family is an enormous amount of pressure. But that can wait for now. He was the toast of the town Sunday — his family always is when the race is in Indy — and the moment, for once, was all his.

To clear his head, he planned to go a family cabin in the Pocono mountains before he returns to the track Friday. He’ll pick up “Nonno,” his 80-year-old grandfather, on the way back.

“It’s just about being chill and trying to not stress,” Andretti said. “I can do that there because it’s an all-wood log cabin and you get there and it’s like everything’s cool, everything is going to be alright.”

16:59ET 17-08-20

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