Joe Jennings, IndyCar Correspondent
Franchitti takes dramatic Indianapolis 500 victory
Dario Franchitti survived a late-race shootout to win the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 on an oppressively hot day. In winning, the Scotsman scored his third 500 victory, joining an elite club of winners that includes Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutheford, Bobby Unser and Helio Castroneves.
The three-time champion drove the Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Team owner Ganassi won for the fifth time, moving him into a fifth-place tie with Lou Moore. Roger Penske has a firm hold on first place with 15 500 victories.
What a race. I think Dan would be proud of this one.
A near-capacity crowd witnessed the race in near-record temperatures. The race record temperature is 92 degrees, and today’s temperature fell one degree short of the mark. Also, the heat index surpassed the 100 mark.
The 500 was hotly contested from the outset and a record 35 lead changes dotted the 200-laps of intense competition. Ten drivers led at least two laps with Marco Andretti heading the charts with 59. At the finish, 17 cars were on the lead lap.
“I want to dedicate this (win) to two of Indianapolis’ finest, Dan Wheldon and Michael Wanser (team manager Barry Wanser’s six-year old son, who died one week after Wheldon’s passing),” Franchitti said. “Thanks to all of the Indianapolis fans for their tribute to Dan today. What a race! What a race! I think D-dub (Wheldon) would be proud of this one. To be on the trophy on either side of Dan, that means more than anything. What a great race today, to be able to come from the back of the grid after being hit on pit lane and being spun.”
Susie Wheldon was among the first to greet Franchitti in victory lane, and a lot of emotion was exhibited between the two friends. The pair wore white sunglasses as a tribute to Wheldon. (White sunglasses were distributed to fans, and they were asked to wear them on laps 26 and 98, the car numbers used by Wheldon for his two Indianapolis victories.)
On his first pit stop, Franchitti’s car was struck from behind by E. J. Viso.. Although Franchitti did not lose a lap, he fell back in the running order but rebounded quickly to catch the lead pack.
At the time, the strongest performers were Ryan Briscoe, Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato.
As the race wound down, a torrid battle broke out among Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Justin Wilson, Ed Carpenter, Sato and Briscoe. The group battled intensely throughout the final 20 circuits with Carpenter and Sato crashing out of the race. Each incident triggered a caution flag, leading to spirited restarts.
At the end, Sato made a brave attempt to wrestle the lead from Franchitti going into the first turn but he crashed heavily, ending his day. The pair did brush together with the winner managing to save his car.
Regarding the tussle with Sato, Franchitti stated, “I moved over when I saw he (Sato) was coming. I came back over and moved up the track. He got loose underneath me. It kind of reminds me of Emerson (Fittipaldi) and Little Al (Unser Jr.) at the end. This means the world to me; this is Indianapolis.”
Sato had a different viewpoint, “I was going for the win. On the last restart, we jumped from seventh to fifth and then from fourth, third and to second. I kept pushing and overtaking. On the last lap, I had a good tow from Dario and thought I had the job done. But he kept pushing and didn’t give me enough room, so that I was well below the white line. What an incredible weekend. It was a very exciting race.”
He was credited with the 17th position.
Addressing his third 500 victory, the winner commented, “The last week I’ve been studying my buddy JR’s book; Johnny Rutherford gave me his book with a wonderful inscription, and he said he hoped to welcome me to the three-time club. To be in the company of guys like that means so much.”
Stated Ganassi, “There were a lot of unknowns going into this race with the new cars and the new engines. But it turned out to be what I thought (it would be) a great race. At the end, no one was saving fuel and it was as fast as anyone could go.”
Ganassi went on to praise Franchitti and the team for not getting rattled after a pit stop went awry in the early portion of the race. He also complimented Franchitti for his driving skills and knowledge of cars, tires, tracks and engines – all of which contributes to his success.
Mike Hill praised Franchitti and the team for their efforts throughout the month and he said once they found the proper balance in the car, they knew they were on the right track. “What we saw today was a motor race,” he said. “We didn’t see a fuel economy race for the last 15 laps, and I think that’s important for IndyCar racing.”
Second was the dejected Dixon, a teammate to Franchitti. “It was co close,” he said. “We definitely had the car (to win) and our fuel mileage had helped us. I wasn’t expecting No. 15 (Sato) to dive in there, although he had been aggressive all day. Until then, I thought we were in a good position. It is good to be so close. Takuma and Dario touched, and I have to credit Dario for saving it.”
Kanaan made a valiant attempt to win the race, leading a lap before falling back ever so slightly. He finished a strong third and was pleased with the outcome.
“It felt good for the three best friends of Dan to be fighting for the win,” he noted. “I tried everything to do it (win). To lose this one like this is an honor. I think Dan will be happy that we did so well - - his best friends finishing 1-2-3.”
Fourth went to Oriol Servia and Ryan Briscoe took fifth.
James Hinchcliffe, Justin Wilson, Charlie Kimball, Justin Bell and Helio Castroneves rounded out the top-10.
Honda and Chevrolet each had five cars in the top-10.
F1 ace Rubens Barrichello ended up in 11th place in his first oval-track race. And he led two laps. “While I have raced a lot, it has been nothing like this. It’s impressive,” he said. “The first 180 laps, it’s all okay. On the last 20 laps, that’s when the race starts but I had a little bit too much down force in the car. I had fun all afternoon and I’ll be back.”
Twelfth went to Alex Tagliani, who drives for Bryan Herta, the 2011 winning car owner. In pre-race ceremonies, Herta donned his driver’s uniform to drive Wheldon’s winning car around the track.
Time of the race was two hours and 58 minutes, and the average speed for the 500 miles was 167.734 miles per hour.
Eight caution flags slowed the event for 39 laps.
Rookie Bryan Clauson drew the first caution with a spin. Sebastian Bourdais drew another slowdown when he made wall contact. In a frightening crash, the cars of Mike Conway and Will Power collided after Conway had spun. Power’s car went underneath that of Conway with the latter becoming airborne and riding cockpit side against the wall. Each driver walked away from the crash.
In the final two incidents, Carpenter spun out on the 181st lap and Andretti crashed six laps later. The latter’s car had been among the leaders until handling problems beset the third-generation driver, but he pointed at Oriol Servia for ending his day.
The Lotus-powered cars of Jean Alesi and Simona de Silvestro were parked early due to lack of speed.