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J. Andretti finding rides - and optimism

From the worst of times sometimes come the best of opportunities. That's John Andretti's take on his life right now.

The Winston Cup driver has been without a full-time job since being fired by Petty Enterprises seven weeks ago. But tomorrow he'll drive a well-prepared Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he had the fastest time in yesterday's first day of practice. And next week in Watkins Glen, N.Y., he'll be in the No. 0 Pontiac of Haas Racing.

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"It's like that book -Who Moved My Cheese?" Andretti said. "I have nothing but good things ahead."

But it is unsettling to be job hunting in the middle of the Winston Cup season. He had been with the Petty organization for the past 5 1/2 years. It was like home. He believed in that team's rebuilding efforts and wanted to be part of it.

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But in June he was released, told he "couldn't do the job" and that it was time to move in a different direction.

"It wasn't John's fault and it wasn't ours," said seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty. "It was just that neither one of us were going forward. It was just time for a change."

So for four weeks, Andretti didn't race. He isn't Jeff Gordon. He didn't expect anyone to just make room for him. But during those weeks he tested a car for DEI, and the results were good. He committed to the DEI team for Indy.

"I couldn't miss Indy," said Andretti. "That would be devastating."

Andretti, 40, is still passionate about his sport. He is, after all, an Andretti. His uncle Mario is a Formula One and CART champion and the winner of the Daytona and Indianapolis 500s. His cousin Michael, also a CART champion, was the winningest active driver in the CART series until he retired from driving in May. And, his father, Aldo, is Mario's twin brother who had his own racing dreams before an accident stopped him. And, John's godfather is A.J. Foyt.

You want a man born to race? It's John Andretti.

He's won twice in the Winston Cup Series. One of those wins came in a car owned by Cale Yarborough. The second, and his last, came in 1999 driving for the Pettys.

Neither team was a contender.

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"I look at John the way Dale [Earnhardt] looked at Michael Waltrip," said Ty Norris, vice president of DEI. "He thought Michael could excel with the right team. Dale saw something and gave him a chance, and now he's a star and competitive every week."

Norris can point to others. To Sterling Marlin, a driver many thought four years ago would be out of the business by now. But Marlin hooked up with car owner Chip Ganassi and has been a championship contender. And there's two-time champion Terry Labonte. After several awful years, he is having a competitive season because he has the right crew combination.

"I look at John and where John's been," Norris said. "The circumstances. The surroundings. The teams he's been with. I see a diamond in the rough. He has the ability and overwhelming desire and focus to win. And, he has the Andretti confidence - like some have the Earnhardt confidence."

There have been rumors that Andretti is a top candidate for the third DEI car next season if Norris can find a full-time major sponsor to replace Pennzoil, which is leaving.

When asked, Norris said nothing has been decided about next season, adding that the new sponsor will be involved in choosing the driver.

"But," Norris said, "I think John should keep his options open like everyone else right now. I look at it like this. It's like a marriage, and I hate it when I see someone get out of one marriage and jump right into another.

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"I believe something good will happen for John. He doesn't have to rush, and I think he should use his flexibility to his advantage to evaluate his opportunities."

For now, Andretti is content to do exactly that.

Right after agreeing to the DEI one-race deal, he was approached by Haas Racing. The No. 0 team was frustrated with the results of its rookie driver, Jack Sprague, and needed a replacement.

With a working relationship with Hendrick Motorsports and a good sponsor, Haas Racing has money, engines and parts. Team general manager John Custer believed the organization should be better than 40th in points. He hired veteran crew chief Tony Furr to reorganize the effort and then went looking for a veteran driver.

"John was available, and he and Tony had worked together a few years back," said Custer. "We thought that would help them hit the road running.

"Of course, John being a man of his word, he already had the commitment for Indy, but we're trying to prepare for next season, so we thought he'd do two races and then we'd see."

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The races at Loudoun, N.H., and Long Pond, Pa., did not go well. Jimmy Spencer nudged Andretti into a crash on the eighth lap of the first one. In the second, after a fine fifth-place qualifying effort, a sway bar problem developed during the race and relegated Andretti to a 33rd-place finish.

Still, the following Tuesday Custer said he would have Andretti back for Watkins Glen.

"We've decided to take it a step at a time," Custer said. "We'll assess again after Watkins Glen."

At the same time, Andretti, too, is assessing. He wants to be with a good team in which he can, at last, show his talent.

"I'm looking at a lot of different places," he said. "In a way, I feel I have to confirm the belief people have in me. But I know I have to be in the right situation. You put Michael Schumacher in a [bad Formula One car] and he won't win, either. Do I believe all the elements exist for me out there? Yes. I'm a very optimistic guy."


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