Franchitti takes win and title
|By Jeff Olson||Sunday, September 9th 2007, 21:56 GMT|
The final lap left one guy screaming and another guy parked on the apron.
Dario Franchitti won the final race of the season and the IndyCar Series championship Sunday when Scott Dixon's car ran out of fuel as it entered Turn 3 on the final lap of the Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway.
The victory and Dixon's runner-up finish gave Franchitti a 13-point margin in the final standings and the first major championship of his 23-year racing career.
The bizarre final lap ended a bizarre final month in which Franchitti flipped twice, crashed with a teammate, clashed with one of his team's co-owners, crashed with Dixon, and apparently worked a deal with Dixon's car owner to go to NASCAR next season. A stunning victory with an unexpected twist was just more of the same.
"For me, the biggest mental challenge of the season was getting back in the car in Kentucky after having flipped the thing five days earlier in Michigan," Franchitti said.
"We were quickest in that first practice session. Getting over that barrier was the most important thing I accomplished this season. I thought, 'If I can do that, I should be OK with anything that's thrown at me.'"
The race-ending drama unfolded when Dixon's Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Dan Wheldon, ran out of fuel while leading with seven laps remaining in the 200-lap race, giving Dixon the lead with Franchitti directly behind.
A lap later, as Danica Patrick prepared to pit, she spun on pit entry, bringing out a caution with six laps remaining. On the ensuing restart with two laps remaining, Franchitti got beside Dixon on the outside and stayed there.
As the two cars entered Turn 3 on the final lap, Dixon's car suddenly slowed and twitched, out of fuel, and Franchitti had to swerve high to avoid. Once he collected the car, he drove to victory.
"He moved quite a way up the track, so my first thing was just to try to collect the car," Franchitti said. "Once I collected the car, there was a lot of screaming on the radio and fist-pumping. We were all talking on the radio at the same time, so all anyone probably heard was static."
Dixon, whose strong finish to the season let him briefly overtake Franchitti in the championship standings, watched his chances come down to a drop of fuel.
"It's extremely frustrating for it to come down to a fuel race," Dixon said. "I can honestly take a beating gracefully when you can get beaten on even terms, but I guess we did. We had the same amount of fuel but didn't use ours as wisely."
Much of the rest of the field was miffed by an unusual set of circumstances that put Dixon and Franchitti a lap ahead of the field. On the 135th lap, Vitor Meira crashed just as Dixon and Franchitti had committed to pit stops.
Pits were closed after that, with Dixon and Franchitti leading the race from the back of the field, which was eventually waved around and placed a lap behind.
"We don't know why they let those guys pit," said Helio Castroneves, who finished fourth, a lap down. "It's an unfortunate scenario. We would have been able to finish very well, but that's the way it goes. We can't cry about it. I'm just happy because we had a very strong car."
Dixon appeared to be in control for much of the race, leading 41 laps compared with Franchitti's 10. But, when the two drivers approached the end of the race, their cars were uneasily low on fuel.
Franchitti and his Andretti Green Racing crew got better fuel mileage out of the No. 27 AGR Honda/Dallara than Dixon and his Target Chip Ganassi Racing crew got out of the No. 9 Ganassi Honda/Dallara.
"I thought he was OK on fuel," AGR co-owner Michael Andretti said. "I wasn't in his pit, so I don't know. I thought everything was cool for both of them. I was surprised when Dixon ran out."
Afterward, Dixon expressed his disappointment that he was so strong but came up just short. "We were really only a corner away from it," Dixon said.
"At that stage I was more worried because there wasn't any radio communication. When the radio is quiet, there's something about to happen."
Quietly finishing third was Sam Hornish Jr., who passed Dixon for the lead on the 162nd lap and held it for 23 laps before pitting for fuel only with 15 laps remaining.
"We definitely had the fastest car, and it's just unfortunate things ended up the way they did," Hornish said. "I'm not sure how the leaders were able to save so much fuel, but it is what it is. Helio and I had the cars to beat out there."
With 10 laps remaining, Dixon let Wheldon take the lead in an effort to save fuel by staying in Wheldon's slipstream. The tactic worked for three laps, until Wheldon's No. 10 Ganassi Honda/Dallara suddenly slowed.
While Franchitti was celebrating his accomplishment with members of the AGR crew, one of his teammates, Marco Andretti, was being released from St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet. Andretti was transported to the hospital after complaining of neck pain after a crash on the 35th lap. Scans were negative, and Andretti was released.
When the dust had cleared and the final drops of fuel had been burned off, Franchitti was the smiling one, celebrating the attainment of his ultimate goal while avoiding the question of his future.
The subject of a possible deal to drive Ganassi's No. 40 car in NASCAR's Sprint Cup in 2008 - reportedly a done deal that has been in the works for some time -- received the same answer Sunday that it received Saturday.
"I'm not going to talk about next year," Franchitti said. "I'm going to enjoy having won this championship. I will think about decisions to be made about next year next week or the week after. Right now I'm just going to have a good time and celebrate winning the championship."
Pos Driver Laps 1. Dario Franchitti 200 2. Scott Dixon 200 3. Sam Hornish Jr 199 4. Helio Castroneves 199 5. Scott Sharp 199 6. Tony Kanaan 199 7. Ryan Hunter-Reay 198 8. Hideki Mutoh 198 9. Buddy Rice 198 10. A.J. Foyt IV 198 11. Danica Patrick 198 12. Sarah Fisher 196 13. Dan Wheldon 193 14. Marty Roth 190 15. Milka Duno 184 16. Ed Carpenter 164 17. Kosuke Matsuura 156 18. Vitor Meira 133 19. P.J. Chesson 94 20. Tomas Scheckter 73 21. Darren Manning 62 22. Marco Andretti 34