Franchitti wins Cleveland thriller

Dario Franchitti took his first victory in over a year after coming from 22nd place at the end of the first lap to win round nine of the Champ Car series in Cleveland. The columnist eked out his fuel mileage for a nail-biting finish and held off Memo Gidley, who finished just three tenths of a second behind the Scot

Franchitti wins Cleveland thriller

Heading into the Grand Prix of Cleveland, Franchitti was upbeat about his year to date despite a general lack of results. On Sunday, the 28-year old Scot put it all together to score a remarkable victory over an equally remarkable opponent. Gidley was making his second start of the season after being called in to replace Nicolas Minassian at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Franchitti's day began from 14th on the grid, but by the end of the first lap he was soon running last after being forced to take to the grass at Cleveland's notorious first turn. But that misfortune turned out to be the lucky break that enabled Franchitti to win the race. He pitted at the end of the second lap for fuel and new tyres, and that enabled him to run to the finish of the 100-lap contest with only two more pit stops, despite the fact that the final 97 laps were run without a full-course caution.

Gidley took the lead on the 21st lap from emerging rookie Max Wilson, and he proceeded to build a 27-second lead prior to the second round of pit stops. When Gidley made his stop on lap 62, Franchitti and Bryan Herta were able to run until Lap 66, and the alternate strategies became clear.

Franchitti had risen to ninth prior to the first round of stops, then up to fifth by lap 37. His march to the front was given a helping hand when Alex Zanardi eliminated himself from third place by trying an over-aggressive lapping move on WIlson.

Back in the lead, Gidley extended his advantage from 6 seconds to 25 seconds over Franchitti between Laps 67 and Lap 90, when he made a third and final fuel stop. Alas, the 25-second lead became a 3.8-second deficit to Franchitti, and Dario used a pair of lapped cars - including that of his Team Green team mate Michael Andretti - to maintain a cushion over the charging Gidley until the end. The American was just 0.305 second behind at the flag.

Franchitti lost a big chunk of his late lead as he came up to lap Kanaan and Andretti, who were fighting for 15th place. Dario finally got past, then Andretti appeared to chop Gidley at Turn 1 with a couple laps to go.

"I don't think Michael blocked Memo," Franchitti said. "If anything, they held me up a little bit. But I radioed in and within two corners Michael moved over."

Gidley didn't seem too bothered either: He said: "There were a number of cars that I had problems getting by. But that's racing and nobody's going to do you any favours. Down the road, I guess I'll have to repay the favour.

"I've been in that position before, and you don't want to give up any ground. I'm sure I've been the subject of a 'Get Gidley out of the way!' call. I came up hard on Michael with a couple of laps left and got really sideways in the chicane a couple of times. I dropped back a bit, and he probably didn't think I was right on him, because I wasn't. I had to work my way back up to him again, and Dario was gone."

Gidley led 59 of the 100 laps. Franchitti only led 11, but they were the 11 that mattered. It was a close run thing for Franchitti, who said his dash display indicated he had less than a gallon of fuel on board his Reynard-Honda at the finish.

"I had to be careful on the last lap at the chicane to make sure I didn't starve the car of fuel," Franchitti said. "That let Memo catch up quite a bit. We were close on fuel, but there's always some error in the fuel meter. I think I was in shock as I went across the line, because I kept waiting for something to happen. Let's hope we can repeat this throughout the rest of the season.

"This has been a long time coming. Last year, we often qualified really well, but got punted off on the first lap or made a mistake on the first lap. Today we put our bad luck behind us. Looking back, going off on the first lap probably helped us. It certainly helped our strategy."

Despite leading the race for so long and not taking the win, Gidley was nonetheless delighted with his best-ever Champ Car result after driving a faultless race. It was particularly timely in the wake of his disastrous debut for the Ganassi team at Portland, where the 31-year old American qualified on the back row and crashed out on the first lap.

"It was a fun situation for me today," Gidley said. "When you run flat out like we did for 100 laps today, the chances of making a mistake are pretty great. I was driving hard every single lap. For me, it was perfect because it was like qualifying every lap and I got a lot of seat time.

"I was really focused on where to place the car and how to get the most out of it, and what happened, happened. I can look back on this race and there was nothing I could have done that I didn't do that would have gotten me up there. That's the way it ended, so we'll just look to do better next time."

Herta was the only driver who ran the distance on only two fuel stops. He came close to earning his third CART win, but was happy with a podium finish.

"We've seen earlier in the year that the Ford engine is remarkable with fuel," Herta said. "I actually beat Dario out of the pits on the last stop, but he passed me on the out lap. He was quicker for the first six or seven laps of a stint, then I was better in the middle and it was even at the end."

Herta nearly threw away a hard day's work by spinning on lap 89, taking Roberto Moreno off in the process. Moreno resumed to finish eighth.

"I had made a run at Dario in Turn 2, but I got dirt on my tyres and spun further around the lap," Herta explained. "Poor Roberto was there, and I'm sorry it happened to him. But this is huge for our Zakspeed Forsythe team after the way the season has gone. I'm just so happy to be able to run at the front and legitimately race for the win."

There were several other outstanding comeback drives from the back after rain upset the normal qualifying order. Gil de Ferran drove from 20th to fourth, Jimmy Vasser from 24th to 5th, and Kenny Brack from 17th to 6th. On the other hand, pole man Mauricio Gugelmin lost the lead after one corner, fell back due to fuel hose nozzle problems, but rebounded to finish ninth.

And Helio Castroneves worked his way toward the front with Franchitti, but he had to make an extra fuel stop and wound up 13th.

Franchitti's win sees him move up into third in the title race, five points adrift of Castroneves, who in turn is 19 points behind series leader Kenny Brack. The Team Green driver was relieved to have moved back up towards the sharp end as the championship moves to the halfway point.

"The best thing is that this has got us out of that group of people who have about 40 points," he said. "A bad weekend could put you right back in the slow qualifying group."

The teams and drivers now have a two-week gap before round 10 in Toronto on July 15.

For full results from Cleveland, click here.

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