Franchitti wins one for Wheldon
INDIANAPOLIS — It would be convenient and sentimental to say that Dario Franchitti’s third Indianapolis 500 win was a fitting result, since it came with the race celebrating the late driver Dan Wheldon, who was one of Franchitti’s best pals.
But appropriate or not, the outcome was in doubt until the final lap Sunday, when Franchitti prevailed after a thrilling spree of lead changes the likes of which the legendary race hadn’t seen for more than half a century.
Franchitti had to hold off one last pass attempt on the final lap, by Japanese driver Takuma Sato, who tried to slip past him low on Turn 1 of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Sato, who drives for a team co-owned by 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal and television personality David Letterman, was pinched to the track’s edge as he pulled alongside Franchitti. Sato spun out and smacked the wall as Franchitti sped ahead.
That brought out the caution flag that froze the field, and Franchitti clinched his third Indy 500 victory to add to his 2007 and 2010 championships. He became the seventh three-time winner in the 96-year history of the event.
“It was a crazy race,” said Franchitti, 39, who also is the reigning IndyCar Series champion. “I had a good car and was able to time the passes.”
Franchitti and his wife, actress Ashley Judd, were riding in the back seat of a convertible during the victory lap.
There was just enough room for another person, so they invited Susie Wheldon, the widow of Dan Wheldon.
“I tell you what: She’s a stronger person than I am to come here,” Franchitti said.
It was Susie Wheldon’s first trip to any race track since her husband’s death, and she watched from runner-up Scott Dixon’s pit stand with his Dixon’s wife, Emma.
“It meant a lot that Suze was able to come around with us today,” Franchitti said.
Dixon, the Indy 500 winner in 2008 and Franchitti’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, finished second after swapping the lead with Franchitti over the final 40 laps.
Veteran Tony Kanaan, still looking for his first Indy 500 win, finished third after leading briefly near the end.
As the friends lined up with six laps remaining for the final restart — Kanaan out front, Ganassi teammates Franchitti and Dixon second and third — they couldn’t help but think of Wheldon.
“Kind of like old times, the three of us back and forwards,” Franchitti said. “I thought, ‘Dan is laughing at us right now going at it.’ ”
Oriol Servia was fourth and pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe fifth.
Wheldon, a stylish British driver who often wore white-framed sunglasses, won the Indy 500 for the second time a year ago, but was killed at age 33 in a racing crash in October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In his honor, this year’s Indy 500 tickets featured Wheldon’s image and the speedway handed out white paper sunglasses to the more than 200,000 spectators on a day when the temperature reached 91 degrees, one degree short of the race record.
Fans wore the sunglasses in tribute during a pre-race parade lap and on laps 26 and 98 — the numbers of the cars Wheldon drove when he won his two Indy 500s.
Franchitti wore them, too, as he doused himself with the traditional bottle of milk in Victory Lane and kissed the yard of bricks — a holdover from the track’s old surface — at the start-finish line.
As they started the final lap, Sato shot past Dixon and then tried to pass Franchitti a moment later.
“I was going for the win,” said Sato, who finished 17th. “But (Franchitti) kept pushing and didn’t give me enough room. I had nowhere to go.”
Franchitti politely disagreed, saying “I didn’t squeeze him down” and that Sato “did everything right until he lost the rear end of the car” and spun out.
Marco Andretti, in a Chevy, led 59 of the first 90 laps but dropped back into the pack when he made an early pit stop.
McClatchy news services contributed to this report.