Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Franchitti's win puts him among Indy's elite

Sacramento, California – You’d think that after all these years, I’d have it figured out: Qualifying doesn’t mean squat on race day.

Ask Dario Franchitti, who qualified 16th for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.  A week ago, Franchitti and his Honda engine appeared to be just short of what was going to be needed to win the great race.

The Chevy power plants were dominant in qualifications.  And yet, just one week later, there was Franchitti drinking the winner’s milk in
Victory Lane
at Indianapolis – his THIRD 500 win.  Yes, he’s now floating high in the rarefied, Hall of Fame air at the Brickyard.

Franchitti zipped past my pre-race picks, which included Penske teammates Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Will Power; a previously confident Marco Andretti and hard-luck Tony Kanaan.  Arguably, Franchitti’s stiffest competition came from his Target teammate, Scott Dixon, who finished second.

If you’re keeping score, Franchitti and Dixon took home nearly $3.6 million of the $13.2 million in prize money.  And Franchitti won the race despite being turned around with contact in the pits early in the race – subsequently putting in a magnificent drive from the back to the front in quick order.

Last week, Franchitti and Dixon looked like they might struggle to get top-10 money.  But somehow, Honda’s engineers tweaked, pulled, twisted and labored to push their engine to not only Chevy-equaling power, but better gas mileage.

The first hint of the turnaround came in last Friday’s final practice session before the race.  Franchitti put up the fastest lap time of the session at 222.360 miles per hour, and Dixon (who qualified 15th) had the second-fastest lap at 222.274 mph.

Right about then, I thought: Holy cow, here they come again!  The two drivers who had won three of the last five Indy 500s were suddenly at the top of the deck.  And I’m guessing my feelings were shared by every other race team at the track.  Mega-successful race team owner Roger Penske must have sensed that Target racing team chief Chip Ganassi was once again holding four aces and had all his chips in the pot.

On race day, once the Target cars were in front, it sometimes seemed like they were toying with the rest of the field.  They serenely passed each other at the end of the frontstretch, taking turns leading the greatest spectacle in racing.

Oh yes, others joined in, courtesy of the new Dallara DW12 chassis that cut a big hole in the air, making drafting and frequent passing the norm.  Was that a plus?  Yes, it was, generating the most lead changes in race history.

The competition was so fierce that it makes you wonder if the new aero kits for 2013 – essentially various bodywork parts that can be added by the race teams – will add or subtract from the action.  But that’s a discussion for another day.

In the end, Franchitti and Dixon did get a challenge from Japanese driver Takuma Sato, a virtual unknown outside the world of INDYCAR racing.  Incredibly, Sato blew past Dixon and then challenged Franchitti on the final lap with a mad draft dash down the front straightaway.

From my seat on the frontstretch, I watched Sato close in on Franchitti’s tail just before entering the first turn.  I assumed he would simply stay glued there through Turn 2 and make a move on Franchitti down the backstretch, or maybe even right before the finish line.

Amazingly, Sato pushed hard get the nose of his car just under Franchitti as they whistled into Turn 1.  Mentally, I thought: No way.  Trouble.

That first turn is so tight that the inside car pressed to the white line is going to have a tough time sticking to the surface.  Alas, Sato became another victim of Turn 1’s ruthless physics.  His car would not stick, and he went spinning to the wall, ending up with a 17th-place finish.  Franchitti somehow held control and sped on to claim victory.

Some of Sato’s colleagues and racing journalists jumped on him for making his move too early, and their arguments have merit.  But frankly, Sato made a dive for racing immortality, a chance to have his face on the Borg-Warner trophy for all time, his name permanently carved into Indy’s sacred record book.

All that and it’s the Indianapolis 500.  Do you go for it when it’s within inches of your reach, never knowing if you’ll ever have such an opportunity for the remainder of your days?

You’re damn right you do.  I can’t blame Sato for making his play for everlasting glory.

But in the end, Sato could not overtake one of Indy’s masters.  Franchitti, who has won three 500s in six years, appears to have plenty of racing left in him.  A possible fourth Indy win for the popular Scotsman looms as the early storyline for 2013.  An unprecedented fifth?  Certainly within reach.

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