He had been close to perfect on the racetrack, avoiding danger and picking the perfect lines around the one-mile tri-oval. But on this cool autumn afternoon, with 35,000 fans packing Pennsylvania International Raceway, perfect on the race track wasn't good enough.
And so Andretti sat, barely concealing his misery, beside Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix winner Bobby Rahal.
"I could have won this race," Andretti said. "If I hadn't made that last pit stop -- and I didn't have to make it, that's what's so miserable. If I hadn't stopped, we would have won."
But Rahal gambled and won, beating Andretti to the finish line by 0.78 of a second. Paul Tracy finished third and Scott Goodyear fourth in the 200-lap race that was run in 1 hour, 33 minutes.
"I knew I had to take a chance to win," said Rahal, who won for the fourth time this season. "I know if I want to win this championship, I have to be willing to take risks."
When yesterday's race began, Andretti was third in points, 10 behind leader Al Unser Jr. and nine behind Rahal. When it was over, Rahal had taken the points lead, Andretti had moved up to second, but was 12 points behind the new leader. Unser dropped to third, 17 points behind, but remained mathematically in the race.
"It doesn't feel very good to do everything right and wind up two points further back in the standings than when I started the day," Andretti said. "Even if I win at Laguna in two weeks and collect all the available points, I still can't win the title without help from Bobby."
Rahal and Andretti had studiously avoided looking at each other during this post-race interview. But now, Rahal turned to look at the man who had denied him the title a year ago.
"I don't think you'll get any help from me," Rahal said. "If I finish fourth or better, it's my title. It's a nice cushion to have."
While everyone else planned for normal pit stop routines yesterday, Rahal went into the race planning to push his luck. If everyone else was going to pit three times, Rahal's team, if it had the chance, would pit only twice. They would run their fuel lean, keep the car steady and "chug along to the finish."
Two cautions for 20 laps after his second and last pit stop on lap 115, enabled Rahal to conserve fuel and average better than two miles to a gallon. But it still was a tricky operation. No one believed Rahal could go 84 miles on one tank of gas.
"To get that kind of mileage, he had to be cheating," said fifth-place finisher Mario Andretti.
And yet, Michael Andretti could have done the same thing if only he had heard his team manager, Ed Nathman, who was screaming into the radio.
"Stay out, stay out, stay out," Nathman bellowed, when the yellow came out on lap 155.
Andretti didn't hear.
"We had a mix-up in communication," Andretti said. "They had been telling me, before the caution, that we had to make another stop. When the yellow came, I was leading and I was right at the entrance to pit road. I thought it was perfect. I came in. My crew says they told me to stay out. I didn't hear it. And they still could have waved me to keep going. If they had, I would have kept the lead. But they didn't and I stopped, and once Bobby had the lead, it was impossible to get around him on this short race track."
Asked if there was any doubt in his mind that his car could have gotten the same kind of mileage and made it the finish, Andretti pointed with his thumb toward Rahal: "No question. If he did it, we could do it."
1, (3) Bobby Rahal, Lola-Chevrolet-A, 200, 128.848. 2, (1) Michael Andretti, Lola-Ford Cosworth XB, 200. 3, (9) Paul Tracy, Penske-Chevrolet-B, 200. 4, (6) Scott Goodyear, 1991 Lola-Chevrolet-A, 200. 5, (5) Mario Andretti, Lola-Ford Cosworth XB, 199. 6, (14) Raul Boesel, Lola-Chevrolet-A, 197. 7, (2) Emerson Fittipaldi, Penske-Chevrolet-B, 197. 8, (7) Scott Brayton, Lola-Chevrolet-A, 197. 9, (8) Eddie Cheever, Lola-Ford Cosworth XB, 197. 10, (10) Scott Pruett, Truesports-Chevrolet-A, 196.
11, (13) Al Unser Jr., Galmer-Chevrolet-A, 195. 12, (17) Al Unser, Penske-Chevrolet-B, 195. 13, (22) Christian Danner, 1991 Lola-Cosworth, 188. 14, (18) Hiro Matsushita, Lola-Chevrolet-A, 187. 15, (19) Buddy Lazier, Lola-Chevrolet-A, 185. 16, (12) Mike Groff, Lola-Chevrolet-A, 151, engine failure. 17, Danny Sullivan, Galmer-Chevrolet-A, 123, suspension. 18, (4) John Andretti, Lola-Chevrolet-A, 118, crash. 19, (20) Dennis Vitolo, 1991 Lola-Chevrolet-A, 110, crash. 20, (15) Ted Prappas, 1991 Lola-Chevrolet-A, 110, engine failure.
21, (16) Stefan Johansson, 1991 Penske-Chevrolet-A, 58, broken shifter. 22, (21) John Jones, 1991 Lola-Buick, 52, crash. 23, (23) Guido Dacco, 1990 Lola-Cosworth, 10, handling.
Time of race: 1 hour, 33 minutes, 7.969 seconds. Margin of victory: 0.788 seconds. Caution flags: 4 for 46 laps. Lead changes: 5 among 4 drivers. Lap leaders: Mi.Andretti 1-58; Goodyear 59-62; Mi.Andretti 63-114; Tracy 115-149; Mi.Andretti 150-156; Rahal 157-200.
1. Rahal, 182 points. 2. Mi.Andretti, 170. 3. Unser, 165. 4. Fittipaldi, 153. 5. Goodyear, 108. 6. Sullivan, 93. 7. Ma.Andretti, 89. 8. Jo.Andretti, 84. 9. Boesel, 73. 10. Cheever, 68. 11. Pruett, 62. 12. Tracy, 59. 13. Mears, 47. 14. Johansson, 45. 15. Brayton, 38.