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Author: Mark W. Theisen
Photo by Brady Whitesel - Bronco's Pitstop Staff Photographer
Photo by Brady Whitesel - Bronco's Pitstop Staff Photographer
May 27th 2012 - View All Photos of the Day     INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA May 27, 2012:   Leading into this year’s 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 each and every driver said that they did not want to be leading the white flag lap of the race because of the tow that the new DW12 Dallara chassis generated allowing the car behind to shoot past.
     Those observations came to fruition not only on the final lap of today’s Indy 500 but through out the hotly contested event and the finish came down to five drivers with two-time 500 winner and defending IZOD Indy Car series champion, Dario Franchitti staying the course as Takuma Sato’s bold move underneath his Target Chip Genesis Racing Dallara caused him to spin bringing out the caution flag, freezing the running order, and handing the win to Franchitti ahead of his team mate Scott Dixon as the final laps were the beset with some of the finest on track witnessed at Indy in quite some time.
     This year’s running of the 500 featured more story lines than in recent years:  the new Dallara chassis; the engine competition between Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus; a talented crop of new rookies and the first oval track race since the death of last year’s winner, Dan Wheldon.
     The other stories played out during the month of May but the Wheldon memorial celebration became part and parcel of today’s race and it was clear from the driver quotes and comments all month long that their fallen comrade was foremost in their minds.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and ABC television featured Wheldon and his history at the track prominently and his widow, Susie, was on hand for the race and was part of the post-race celebration of Franchitti as he was one of Dan’s closest friends having driven on the Target team for a few years.
     “I just want to dedicate this (win) to two of Indianapolis’ finest, Dan Wheldon and Michael Wanser,” were the first words from Franchitti as he exited the car. Wanser was the son of a Franchitti teammate who lost his battle to cancer the week after Wheldon was killed at the Las Vegas season finale last year.
     Chevrolet dominated the headlines in practice and qualifications but today was victim of a better race strategy and new found speed for the Honda as the Target cars were powered by Honda and placed first and second with Honda drivers leading 107 of the 200 laps.
     The event was run in record heat for the track, 93 degrees and that played into the handling characteristics of many of the cars.  Early leaders fell victim to the rising track temperatures and slicker racing surface and then spent the later part of the trace chasing the proper set-up and down-force for them to be competitive again.
     The race began with pole sitter Ryan Briscoe leading into turn one and was ahead coming out of the third turn when James Hinchcliffe gave early indication of the effect of the tow generated by the car in front passing Briscoe coming down the front straight to lead the first lap.  Briscoe that did the same thing on the second lap and it became crystal clear that this could be one exciting race.
     The pair then swapped the lead six times in the next 20 laps as early on it became apparent that drivers just wanted to see what their new car would or would not do and were content to ride it out for a while.
     The two Lotus entries in the race were called into the pits by race control on lap 9 due to slow speed.  This early exit was expected as the Lotus cars qualified nearly 16 miles-per-hour slower than the pole winning car and thus were deemed to be not competitive enough to continue in a safe manner in the race.  It was a disappointment for the drivers, Jean Alesi and Simona de Silvestro to leave but they had prepared for that decision and abided by the rule.
     Rookie Bryan Clauson spun in the first turn on lap 14 to bring out the first caution of the race.  Clauson saved the car from hitting the wall and was able to return later in the event but the first yellow sent the remaining cars in the race to the pits.
     This stop became a water-shed moment for Franchitti, who had started 16th in the field and was working toward the front when he was struck from behind by E.J. Viso as he entered his pit.  The rear contact pushed the car into the pit road wall damaging the nose cone.  With the race under yellow the team was able to change the nose cone and check that no damage was sustained in the rear of the car and he returned to the race the last car in the running order but still on the lead lap.
     When the green flag came out on lap 18 Hinchcliffe was leading but both Briscoe and Marco Andretti used the draft to pass Hinchcliffe and on lap 20 Andretti again used the maneuver to take the lead for the first time in the race.
     Early on it was the cars from Andretti Autosport, Marco Andretti, Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay who seemed to be the fastest on the track as the trio was at or near the front for the first 80 laps.
     Racing continued under green to lap 44 when green flag pit stops commenced with Hinchcliffe leading the way.  Chevrolet powered cars were pitting at that juncture with the Honda able to stay on the track a few additional laps signaling the possibility of the race turning into a fuel mileage contest.  Franchitti had picked up 12 spots on the track between the pit mishap and the second stop and was now aware that did, indeed, have a fast and reliable car.
     The second round of green flag stops commenced on lap 73 with Marco Andretti surrendering his lead of 24 laps to Dixon.  When Dixon stopped Charlie Kimball inherited the lead and when the stops were over Andretti was back in the lead but then an accident in the first turn between Mike Conway and IRL series point leader Will Power brought out the second caution of the race.
     Some cars elected to pit but most stayed on the track after just pitting but at this juncture it was Andretti leading Dixon, Franchitti (now in third from last), Sato and Briscoe.
     Two laps into the restart Ana Beatriz spun her Andretti Autosport car in turn hitting the wall in the short chute between turn one and two.
     Andretti pitted from the lead at this point but the Hondas of Dixon, Franchitti, Kimball and Graham Rahall along with the Chevrolet of Hunter-Reay stayed on the track with Hunter-Reay splitting the Hondas on the restart.
     At the halfway point of the race it looked as though the Honda’s could go between 36 and 40 laps on a full load of fuel while the Chevrolets were limited to 32 – 34 at best.  Dixon leads from lap 91 until he had to stop on lap 118 for fuel giving the lead to Sato who had stopped earlier in this stint.
     Rookie Rubens Barrichello, the Formula One standout making his first oval track start took the lead as it was cycling through another round of green flag pit stops to become the 58th different driver to lead the 500 in his/her first start.
     When Barrichello pitted the lead was Sato’s and the Japanese standout showed that it was no accident that his Rahal-Letterman-Lannigan Honda was in the hunt for the win as he battled back and forth for the lead three laps before Franchitti made it a three way battle for the lead.
     Sebastian Saavedra slowed in the pit lane on lap 146 bringing out the yellow for the 4th sending the Honda fuel advantage scenario out the window and all the lead cars into the pits.
     Sato’s crew turned him ahead of Franchitti, Dixon, Hinchcliffe and Justin Wilson as the race resumed on lap 152 and now, with the knowledge that all teams would have to make one more stop, it was a resumption of flat –out racing and the beneficiary were the fans.
     Dixon and Franchitti swapped the lead three more times before a lap 164 yellow for a tow-in for the stalled car of Josef Newgarden.  The restart now brought new players into the picture as Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia and Ed Carpenter, all of who played the wait and see game and conserved their car early were now making their moves to position themselves for the win.
     Carpenter, who had moved as high as third only to fall back slightly, overcorrected after going below the white line on lap 181 and spun his car through the first and second turn.  He avoided contact and was towed to the pits, restarted is car, and returned to the race but now out of the race for the win as one of the few owner/drivers in the sport of auto racing these days.
     On a four car wide restart Kanaan drove from fifth to first to the lead going into turn one to bring the crowd to their collective feet’s in recognition of the exceptional racing they were witnessing. Franchitti reclaimed the lead before the end of that lap but on lap 187 Kanaan again showed that he belonged in the fray taking the lead and was in front when the day ending in dramatic fashion for Andretti.
     After battling handling for most of the last half of the race he was in position for a charge for the win when he, too, drifted below the white line and then lost control of the car and in trying to right it sent the car into the first turn wall.  After leading a race high 59 laps the Andretti family jinx continued at Indianapolis with another stalwart run by a family member ending up with that coveted win.
     It took six laps to clean the debris from Andretti’s machine from the track and that set up a six car shootout for the win with Kanaan leading Franchitti, Dixon, Briscoe, Wilson, Hinchcliffe, Sato, Servia and Barrichello.
     Franchitti passed Kanaan entering turn for the lead on the restart as Kanaan began to fall back as the rest of the cars moved to two, three and four wide to get to that coveted number two position on the final lap.
     Dixon led lap from lap 195 to l99 when Franchitti and Sato made their moves with the latter taking lead with Sato, now in second, waiting for “the time”.
     As the pair raced under the white flag and headed to the first turn Sato took to the low groove in his attempt to take the lead rather than waiting for the final turn.  The pair seemed to touch wheels; Sato would later say they did while Franchitti said they did not.  What did happen is that Sato went below the white line and suffered the same fate as the others that did that today.  His car crossed up and began to spin and somehow Franchitti was spared contact and because Sato continued across the track and into the wall the yellow came out and ended the race leaving Dixon, Kanaan, Servia and Briscoe wondering what they would have done coming out the of the final turn.
     Franchitti joins 10 drivers who have now won the 500 three or more times.  “This means the world,” said Franchitti.  “To be in the company of those who have accomplished this feat means so much to me!  This is Indianapolis, to be on either side of Dan (on the Borg Warner trophy that features a facial likeness of the winning driver) means just as much.  We had three of Dan’s closest friend battling at the end (Kanaan, Dixon and himself) for that honor to on the trophy next to him and it would have been nice for any one to win.  I’m just glad for the honor.  He has to be watching and happy for us all today.”
     Franchitti and the Ganassi Honda were embarrassed by the effort last week that saw them outclassed by the Chevrolet contingent.
     “The results of last weekend only made us work that much harder this week,” said Mike Hull, chief engineer for Ganassi Racing.  “We began last Sunday with nearly half a 500 in practice laps with that embarrassment as motivation it made us work that much hard to achieve what we did today.” 
     “We had to answer to our sponsors as to our showing last weekend,” said Ganassi.  “It was very hard to make those calls come last Monday but our efforts and those by the Honda people gave us help and what we needed to turn the corner and enable what happened today.”  I’m happy for our entire team.  This race, this year was marked by a series of unknowns.  Even going in to today we had no idea what Chevrolet had we just had to run our race and see what the extreme weather dictated and with the experience of our veteran drivers’ we preserved today.”
     “I thought I was going to get pretty lucky when they (Franchitti and Sato) touched,” said Dixon, “and I thought they would both end up in the fence.  Credit Dario, he had a great day, he not only saved it then he came through the field and won the race.  It was great day for our Target team to finish one-two on their 50th anniversary.  You couldn’t have had it a better way.  I just wish the 9 (his car) would have been first!”
     When Dixon was asked where the performance came today he echoed the words of both Hull and Ganassi.  “I think (Honda) have been working hard from the start of the season.  Our fuel mileage was good to start the month and it was pretty high today but the end of the day came down to performance and our set-up was spot one.  It is great for the fans to see a race some down to the drivers and not how much fuel is left in the tank.”
     “I’m just glad this month is done,” said Kanaan.  “I think the emotional toll on us all was higher than at the other tracks as Dan (Wheldon) won this race last year and we all wanted to be the one to honor his memory by being the next champion.  Our team gave me a great car and I took care of it all race long to get to the end we had a chance!  That’s all I ask for, a chance!  I wanted to be on the trophy next to Dan but it was not meant to be.  We all miss him and hopefully we can move on and perhaps next year will be mine”
     Servia was another of those drivers who began the season with Lotus only to be a victim of their difficulties.  His Dreyer-Reinbold team joined Panther Racing for the remainder of the season in a Chevrolet and it was no accident that he was around at the end as car’s from Panther had finished second in each of the past three 500 and know the strategy to be in the hunt at the end.  “I have to thank all the people from Panther for making us a part of their team and for sharing what they know about Indy in order for us to finish where we did today,”
     Pole-sitter Briscoe finished fifth and was happy with the finish after struggling mid-way through the race.  “We lost the handle for a while and lost track portion,” said the Penske Racing driver.  “We just were patient and we came back to be ready to pounce but did not get the opportunity.”
     Hinchcliffe, Wilson, Kimball, Townsend Bell and Helio Castroneves were fifth to 10th respectively while Barrichello finished 11th, the highest rookie in the race and a shoo in for rookie-of-the-year honors tomorrow at the victory dinner.
     “My crew tried to give me a safe car,” said Barrichello.  “I just did not have enough power at the end to do anything and that was more out of concern for me as a new driver here than what they did to the car.  Not enough wing, but that’s okay.  It was a great achievement today, the first oval experience; it was something very different than anything I’ve done.  It was madness at times out there, people were racing hard but all in all I had a positive afternoon.”
     Sato left thinking he made the right move.  “What an incredible weekend,” said Sato.  “Not only the weekend, but also the month of May.  I was going for the win.  On the last restart, we jumped from seventh to fifth, than fourth, third and second and I kept pushing and overtaking.  On the very last lap, I had a good tow from Dario.  I thought I had the job done, but he kept pushing and didn’t give me enough room, to that I was well below the white line and that was it.  I’m sorry for the team but it was an exciting race.”
     Franchitti and Dixon’s one-two finish was the first time stable-mates finished in the top two spots since Penske’s Gil de Ferran beat Castroneves in 2003 and the win at Indy was the fifth for owner Ganassi tying Lou Moore for second on the list of all time car owners.  Penske leads with a staggering 15 500 wins.
     There were a record 34 lead changes today eclipsing the pervious record of 29 set in 1960 showing how the new Dallara chassis allows for the slingshot pass and is a precursor for things to come in future oval track races and next years 500.
     The win today was the first for Honda in the IRL this year after Chevrolet had won the first four.  Even with his early departure Power still has a commanding lead in the series point standings heading into next Sunday’s race in Detroit.  He leads teammate Castroneves and Hinchcliffe by 34 with Dixon in fourth 57 behind.  Despite his win today Franchitti will trials the leader by 64 points after his early season woes with the new chassis and engine that seem to have disappeared this weekend at Indy.
     The day ended with Wheldon’s widow, Susie, sharing the victory ride in the pace car with Franchitti and his wife performer Ashley Judd and owner Ganassi.  It had to be a tough week on her but Susie Wheldon was nothing short of phenomenal handling all the situations handed her including the acceptance of Dan’s race winning award of last year.  The Dixon’s, Scott and his wife Emma, spent six months with Susie and her sons after Dan’s death and are credited with helping her through the difficulties of the loss.  It was for that that Dixon was a favorite going into today but he seemed genuinely happen with the outcomes and the fact that perhaps the series can move forward from the tragedy of last fall.
     The temperature hit 91 degrees officially at the Indianapolis Airport thus it was not a record with the previous race high temperature of 92 set in 1937.  It was warmer at the track than at the airport but the official is the airports so the old record still stands.  Speedway police report that fans generally heeded all warnings and problems were few and far behind.
     It was a great race and one can only imagine what is yet to come with further development of the DW12.!