Hornish, Andretti and Patrick should all be happy

I've watched many Indy 500s on television, but this was my first time at the racetrack, let alone calling it, and I don't think I've ever seen a race that exciting.

Everybody knows I'm going to broadcast NASCAR in 2007, but I got asked last week to come back and do the Indianapolis 500 again next year. I can't wait.

The thing that made it so exciting to me was the battle between a veteran and a 19-year-old rookie. That's what made the race so dramatic to me and, I believe, made it the most exciting finish ever.

When it was all over, I wanted to say something so badly on the broadcast, but I ran out of time. What I wanted to say was that if you think IRL races aren't exciting, it was just proved that they are some of the most exciting races anywhere. You saw it all day long, with so much passing and so much speed. And it's been going on like that all year long.

And I didn't think Sam Hornish Jr. had the speed to win. When I saw Marco Andretti with the lead he had going into the last lap, I thought he had it won. When I saw the lead he had going into Turn 3, I thought he had it won. When Andretti was coming off Turn 4, I thought he still had it wrapped up.

To look at the run Hornish got, he had momentum like he's never had in his life.

I never would have thought Marco would get beat on that last corner.

This victory helps raise Hornish to a new level among American open-wheel drivers. But he still has a way to go to reach who I think is the best -- A.J. Foyt -- and some of the other legends like Mario Andretti and Rick Mears.

He's now won the biggest race, and this solidifies Hornish as a great driver and puts him in a group among some of the best, but he has more work to do to reach the very best, and I'm not sure he will stick around to do that.

Roger Penske and I have both been very open about Hornish perhaps coming to NASCAR, and I think that's something he would like to do, but the thing he wanted to do first was win the Indy 500. Now he's done that.

He has said he would like to win more of them, but there's nothing really holding him up now. It's up to Roger and Sam to make that decision.

And I understand the speculation. Just about everybody wants to come to NASCAR because there's more money and it's more popular.

But I also understand now why Tony Stewart kept going back to the Indy 500. I think when he finally won the Brickyard 400, it gave him a sense of accomplishment he didn't have to keep coming back to try to win the 500.

It looks like IndyCar could be in good hands.

I thought coming into the Indy 500 that Marco Andretti was looking like something special and I'm happy I said so after what he did in the race. He didn't make a mistake the entire month of May. I never saw him get out of control, I never saw him get into a controversial conversation that would make him look bad. He's really cool.

But he had some fun.

He bet $1,000 with Tony Kanaan that he wouldn't be the fastest rookie qualifier and he lost. He wouldn't even bet on himself and Kanaan gladly took his money.

"I've never been so nervous in my entire life," Andretti said before the race.

He never put a wheel in the wrong position, he was solid as a rock all day long.

It's just amazing what he's doing at the age of 19.

And Danica Patrick was steady, putting together a really impressive run.

She just needed more speed. She had a good-handling car, she qualified in the top 10 and finished eighth and on the lead lap. She gets an A-plus. She didn't have the fastest car, but she has a great team and she ran a great race.

She did what she had to do. She gained some points, she finished the race and she proved that she is a good driver and not just a fluke. Her only downside was Marco stealing most of her thunder.

And this week we're facing a very different race.

I won three times at Watkins Glen, and it's a very physical racetrack and it will be even more so in an Indy car.

Why the Indy cars don't have power-assisted steering, I don't know. It hurts a driver like Patrick or probably a young driver like Andretti, since they don't likely have the brute strength of someone like Kanaan.

I witnessed it personally when I tested Hornish's car on the road course at Homestead. These cars are very difficult to steer.

Kanaan has to be among the favorites. Scott Dixon is great on road courses and Helio Castroneves is an absolute road-course master. And Dario Franchitti was dominating at St. Petersburg before he broke a piece in his suspension.

I think it's a shootout between those four guys, although there are more that could sneak in there.

Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace will provide coverage for ESPN and ABC during this year's IndyCar Series and selected Nextel Cup races. You can check out all things Rusty at his constantly updated and upgraded Web site at www.rustywallace.com