By MIKE HARRIS
AP Auto Racing Writer
Making it big in open-wheel racing is hard enough. Doing it in the shadow of a famous father can add to the pressure.
Graham Rahal, the son of a former champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, avoided some of the difficulties by choosing to drive for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, rather than Rahal-Letterman, the team co-owned by his dad, Bobby Rahal.
Marco Andretti, on the other hand, stepped right into the cauldron, taking a ride with Andretti Green Racing, co-owned by his father, Michael, a longtime driving star and also a former champion.
The 21-year-old Andretti didn't take long to let people know that he was ready to take advantage of the talent he inherited from his father and grandfather, Indy winner and former champion Mario Andretti. Marco nearly won Indy as a rookie in 2006, losing to Sam Hornish Jr. by a matter of feet after getting passed on the final straightaway.
He also posted his first win that August on the road course at Sonoma.
But Andretti has gone winless in the two years since, while the 19-year-old Rahal, who cut his racing teeth last year in the now-defunct Champ Car series, won earlier this year at St. Petersburg, in his IndyCar Series debut.
Most of the 2007 season was a struggle for Andretti, and 2008 has been a mixed bag of podium finishes and costly mistakes by both the driver and his No. 26 team.
"A lot of self-inflicted mistakes," Michael Andretti said, shrugging. "But not everything has been his fault. At Nashville, he had a broken suspension and everybody thought he crashed. So he's had some tough luck, especially in places where he was going to be really good in the race.
"But, for me, where I've been really most proud is that ... probably 80 percent of the time this season, the setups for all four (AGR) drivers have drifted to what he developed. And I think that's what has been really impressive. Last year at this time he was starting to get it down, but if you look at where he was at the beginning of last year to where he is now, it's like two different people."
And Michael Andretti didn't hesitate when asked if he thought about going the way the Rahals did and have his son drive for another team.
"I'm not sure I want to really be racing against Marco," Andretti said. "Then it's like a mixed feeling. You still want him to do well, but he's on another team.
"Maybe it would be good for him in a way, just because everybody thinks the dad thing, that maybe he's being coddled and all that. But I can assure you, on this team, it's something I have to control myself because sometimes I'm too hard on him. He's definitely not being coddled."
Coming off a strong third-place performance on the oval at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night, the young Andretti remains the only AGR driver still unsigned for 2009. But nobody, including Marco, expects him to be going anywhere else for the foreseeable future.
"We obviously want to be signed as soon as possible," the youngster said hours before the Kentucky race. "This is where my heart lies, with this team. They brought me into the game. It's exactly where I feel at home and where I think I can do big things.
"There's nobody else I want to win with (more) than my father. I think we have the resources within the team to allow me to follow through on my ultimate goals: Win the Indy 500 and the championship and just win races."
His father was just as certain that Marco will remain a part of the team that also includes Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick and rookie Hideki Mutoh.
"I was just asked the question, 'Would it be good for him to go and see another side, another team, maybe, from the standpoint of growing and seeing the grass isn't always greener?' From that standpoint, it probably wouldn't be bad for him to do it," Michael Andretti said. "But, from the other side, we really feel that he's on the verge of being a major player in every race. I really believe that.
"He's got all the tools and it's all starting to come together. You'd hate to lose that."
Besides, if Marco did leave, where would he go?
"Yeah, what else is there?" he said, grinning. "I mean, (I'm) already at the top, as far as the top team in open-wheel racing in America."
What about Formula One, where his grandfather is one of two Americans to win a championship and his father had a brief, mostly unsuccessful run?
"If an opportunity would present itself in Formula One -- the right one, which I'm not sure would ... " he said, his voice trailing off. "It has to be one of the top three teams. The reality of it is, if I won Kentucky, Ferrari's not going to be knocking on my door.
"That would probably be the only other thing that I would do, which I'm sure Dad would be right there with me, as far as supporting me. But my heart lies in America. I think we can do big things within the team, and it's definitely where I want to be."