Franchitti Dominates the Streets of Long Beach
After recovering from a poor race start, when he dropped from second on the starting grid to fourth on the opening lap, Dario Franchitti went on to dominate Sunday's Grand Prix of Long Beach, leading 51 of the 85 laps and moving to the top of the early-season points standings with his first win of the season. The victory also made a pleasant present for Franchitti's wife, actress Ashley Judd, who was celebrating her birthday Sunday at the circuit.
A slightly tardy get-away at the green flag saw Franchitti lose positions to both impressive rookie Rafael Matos and Justin Wilson in the run to the first turn, but he regained third place over Wilson on Lap 3, and 10 laps later got around Matos for second. A quick pit stop on Lap 16 for fuel and to trade his softer alternate tires for a set of standard replacements, put Franchitti in position to assume the lead as the rest of the field made their first pit stops. He was at the front for the rest of the day, leading the final 30 laps for a comfortable 3.3-second victory over pole-qualifier Will Power.
The Honda HI9R Indy V-8 engine, featuring a revised and quieter exhaust system among its list of improvements for the new season, again ran with perfect reliability, as 23 drivers logged a total of 7,631 miles in practice, qualifying and racing around the demanding 1.9-mile street circuit, without a single engine-related failure. Power was hampered by sporadic radio communication with his pits. After leading the first 16 laps, a communication problem led him to believe a full-course caution had been called and he slowed, initiating a multi-car pileup in his wake. Ironically, that event did lead to a yellow flag, but with Matos now in the lead. Power was able to regain third place with a mid-race pass on Danica Patrick, then moved up to second -- ahead of both Tony Kanaan and Patrick -- in the final round of pit stops.
After a troubled practice and qualifying, Andretti Green Racing teammates Kanaan, Patrick and Marco Andretti all had strong races, with Kanaan just edging Patrick at the blend line following the last round of pit stops to take third. Patrick would finish fourth, while Marco would battle Dan Wheldon as the pair bumped each other in the famed Long Beach hairpin corner before Wheldon prevailed for fifth, with Andretti rounding out the top six finishers.
Today's victory extends Franchitti's record as Honda's winningest open-wheel racer, with 10 CART victories to go with his nine IndyCar wins for a total of 19 career triumphs. Alex Zanardi is next on the Honda all-time list with 15 victories.
The 2009 IndyCar Series resumes with the first high-speed oval race of the year, on the high banks of Kansas Speedway on April 26.
Dario Franchitti (#10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) Started 2nd, finished 1st, 9th career IndyCar win, has twice previously finished second at Long Beach behind a Ganassi entry in CART events: "Well, if you can't beat them, join them! It was an awesome day for the entire Target Chip Ganassi Racing team. Just a lot of fun. The timing of our first pit stop was critical. I was able to make up for my bad start and pass both Justin [Wilson] and later 'Rafa' [Matos], then the team called me in at the perfect time. My 'reds' [softer, alternate tires] were just starting to go off, and the guys got me out so fast we were able to pick up the lead as the others made their stops. Our car ran flawlessly all day. It's great to be back with a unified [open wheel] series at Long Beach."
Will Power (#12 Team Penske Honda) Started 1st, finished 2nd, moved to the #12 car on Saturday after Helio Castroneves returned to drive the #3 Team Penske Honda: "It was tough today. We had radio problems from the start of the race and that probably cost us a couple of positions. But it's a great finish considering all that's gone on this weekend, switching cars and crews after Helio [Castroneves] was able to run. I've been so fortunate to be able to run with Team Penske so far this season, and I'm looking forward to racing for this team at Indianapolis."
Jack Spurney (General Manager, Honda Performance Development) on today's race: "It's great to be back at Long Beach, and racing IndyCars in front of our many 'hometown' associates for the first time since 2002. In a lot of ways it was a typical Long Beach event: beautiful weather, a big crowd, and an exciting race with six different leaders, several incidents and a good mix of different drivers and teams at the top. Congratulations to Dario Franchitti and his entire Target Chip Ganassi Racing team on a well-earned victory, and we're looking forward to next week's first oval race of the season."