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Jim Haines photo, w/permission indycar.com
Jim Haines photo, w/permission indycar.com
May 28th 2007 - FRANCHITTI WINS RAIN AND ACCIDENT PLAGUED
INDY 500

By: Mark W. Theisen

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA May 27, 2007: Intermittent rain storms almost delayed the start of the 91st Indianapolis 500, and then delayed the race some two and half hours just after the half way mark and finally curtailed the finish when the final deluge hit 34 laps short of the 200 lap 500 mile distance.

In between the race was a true mind and patience test for the drivers and crew chiefs that was compounded by 11 caution flags, not to mention the rain delay and in the end it was Scotsman Dario Franchitti, who was leading for the third time in the race when the final downpour hit, emerging with his first Indianapolis 500 win in his fifth try.

With a weather forecast of 70% chance of scattered showers all day long and with a huge downpour just after 8:00A.M. the entire race became a question mark long before the scheduled 1:00 P.M. start, but a determined effort on the part of a huge track drying crew and co-operation for the skies enabled the race to get started under clear skies at 1:11 P.M. with pole-sitter Helio Castroneves leading the field of 33 cars down for the start.

Tony Kaanan, who stared alongside Castroneves, passed his fellow Brazilian and very good friend to lead the first lap before giving back the lead to Castroneves on the third lap as the pair gave early indication that they would be contenders all race long exchanging the lead four more times in the first 27 laps.

The first caution appeared on lap 11 for a mirror that had fallen off the car of John Andretti in the 3rd turn. Despite the race being only 11 laps old all the cars made their initial pit stop of the race, mainly to check fuel consumption and tire wear. Castroneves won the race out of the pits and was in front on lap 37 when Roberto Moreno slammed into the wall in the first turn to bring out the second caution.

Marco Andretti, a teammate to Kaanan, Franchitti, Danica Patrick and Michael Andretti, his father, on the powerful Andretti-Green Racing Team and who finished second in last year’s Indy 500 took the lead out of the pits that followed Moreno’s crash and led for 6 laps before Scott Dixon took control of the race.

During his pit stop following Moreno’s crash Castroneves encountered a fuel delivery issue and his stop turned into a 40 second marathon that dropped him to 29th on the restart but the two-time Indy 500 mile champion immediately set out on a march to the front.

Jon Herb brought out caution flag number 3 on lap 52 with a brush with the second turn wall and rookie Milka Duno hit the first turn wall on lap 66 for the fourth yellow as Kaanan, Dixon, and last year’s 500 miles champion Sam Hornish Jr. all took turns at the front of a very competitive field.

John Andretti’s tough day ended on lap 99 when he lost control of his car in the second turn and slammed into the wall. His accident was quickly followed by the sixth yellow flag when the second rookie in the 500 field today, Phil Giebler hit the wall in the first turn.

That yellow was followed by a red flag when heavy rain began to fall at 3:02 P.M. bringing the field to a halt on pit road with Kaanan leading Marco Andretti and Patrick.

At this point of the race several of the contending cars were on different pit stop sequences due to strategy and misfortune and that included Franchitti, who had to stop out of sequence due to a punctured tire when he ran over debris during the race. With the yellows coming fast and furious many of the teams chose to stay on the track rather than stop as the leading car had les turbulent air than the rest and that was a big advantage.

It took track crews over two and half hours to dry the track and get it back to racing condition and when the green flag came back out at just short of 6:00 P.M. it became a major strategy game between the cars as the next rain storm was about an hour away.

Marco Andretti took the lead from Kaanan on lap 177 but it was Kaanan back on top the next lap and looking clearly like the class of the field. The fans that remained were treated to exciting racing the next 40 laps as leader after leader made their pit stops taking on various loads of fuel as crew chiefs calculated what amount of fuel was needed to make it to the end.

Marty Roth slowed the pace of the race on lap 151 when he hit the wall in the first turn bunching up the field for the next restart.

Jacques Lazier hit the wall in the fourth turn on lap 157 and came across the track and into the rear wheel of Kaanan’s car flattening the left rear tire sending the car that was the most dominant in the race to the pits and out of contention.

With dark clouds again approaching the race resumed and on lap 163 Marco Andretti made wheel to wheel contact with Dan Wheldon sending his car into the wall turning it one its side, sliding across the track. When Marco hit the crass it righted his car rather than flipping the machine but he was out of the race along with Wheldon and Buddy Rice and Ed Carpenter who were collected up in the accident.

Again Franchitti’s crew chief kept him on the track knowing rain was coming but also knowing that he only had enough fuel for 15 more laps before he had to stop but the veteran driver who has been loyal to Andretti-Green Racing was rewarded with the biggest win of his career.

Dixon finished second followed by a hard closing Castroneves and Hornish who together have three Indy 500 miles wins and driver for owner Roger Penske, whose cars have won the 500 a record 14 times. When it comes to strategy at Indianapolis 500, the Penske cars shine, and were poised for a 15th win when the rains came again ending the race prematurely.

Franchitti, who gave Andretti-Green Racing its second 500 mile race win in three years, was in a state of euphoria after the race. “I can hardly believe it. Who would have thought it?” said Franchitti, who is married to actress Ashley Judd and who greeted him in the make-shift victory lane set up out of the rain. “I have to thank my team. Can you believe it? The reason we had to go to the strategy we ended up with is because we cut a tire on some debris. We had to make an extra pit stop but my guys they called a great race. I have know idea how our teams does it with five cars, but they are great and I’m happy to part of this.”

“Such a strange day,” said Dixon, who recorded his best finish in five Indy 500’s. “We were good at some point and then when the rain came and cleaned the track, we just had no grip and we were really bad off in traffic. We just needed some way to cycle to the front and we did that in the pits and it paid off for us today.”

Despite his up and down day Castroneves was confident he could have won the race despite his early race misfortune had it gone the full distance. “We started off extremely well and then unfortunately had a little incident in the pits that put is behind,” said Castroneves. “With a lot of patience, not only from me but from my team we made it back to the front and were closing on them. My former teammate (four time Indy 500 mile champion, Rick Mears) says at 160 it is time to go and I was ready unfortunately the rain the came. I was looking forward to a great battle at the end but it did not happen this time.”

Hornish came back from an early race scrape with Vitor Meira that put him a lap down to be in contention at the end. “We were pretty happy with our car at the end of the race,” said Hornish. “We battled back from 15th to fourth and were running extremely well when the rains came again. The resumption of the race helped us gain the extra spits back.”

Ryan Briscoe, in car owned by Penske’s son Jay, finished fifth giving him his best every Indy 500 finish.

Scott Sharp, Tomas Scheckter, Patrick, Davey Hamilton, and Meira rounded out the top ten and form Hamilton who was seriously injured five years the top ten was a reward for dedication and determination.

“It was all strategy, really,” said Hamilton. “Our car was OK but our guys did a great job. A wheel fell off during a pits top and it could have ended our day but they recovered and guided me to this finish. I can’t tell you how happy I am.”

Marco Andretti became the first rookie to lead the Indy 500 in his first two years at the track as despite the late race problems for Kaanan and Marco the day turned out well with Franchitti’s victory. Michael Andretti, as a driver, never won the Indy 500 even though he led over 450 laps of competition and now between himself, his father, Mario and his team they have combined a total of over 1,000 laps led at Indy and perhaps the famed Andretti “jinx” at Indianapolis now over.

Today was the second time in four years that the 500 was cut short due to rain as Rice won the race in 2004 for Rahal-Letterman Racing.

Wheldon, the winner of two of the first four races on the 2007 Indy Racing League schedule, was a non-factor today. After pacing most of the practice sessions leading up to qualifying he was the favorite but track position and an ill-handling car put him behind most of the day.

The Indy Racing League Racing now moves to Milwaukee next weekend for the ABC Supply/A.J. Foyt 225 at 3:30 Sunday.
 
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