- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- The battle for the IndyCar Series championship got upside down and generally too close for comfort Sunday in the Firestone Indy 400.
The apparent swan song for open-wheel racing at Michigan International Speedway lived up to the reputation of wacky MIS races of the past. Led by Tony Kanaan, only eight cars were running at the finish of a crash-strewn event delayed nearly five hours by rain.
IndyCar Series championship leader Dario Franchitti dominated the first three-quarters of the 200-lap race but was launched into a frightening accident when his Andretti Green Racing Dallara-Honda touched wheels with Dan Wheldon's similar car from the Target/Ganassi Racing stable.
Franchitti's car fortunately never hit any catch fencing. Instead, it bounced back onto the track -- or more specifically, on the nose of leading championship challenger Scott Dixon's car -- before being struck again by another speeding car, this one driven by A.J. Foyt IV.
It took a few tense moments for the IndyCar safety team to right the inverted No. 27 Canadian Club car. But once that happened, Franchitti scrambled out basically unscathed.
"I told Scott in the medical center that we have got to stop meeting like this," Franchitti joked. "We've been running side by side in so many races lately.
"I'm just glad he's OK," he added. "That's one of the parts I don't enjoy about superspeedway racing, when it's like that. We were running so close, and sometimes it's stupid like that, just being flat all the time and trying to look for that advantage."
The 34-year-old Scotsman demonstrated he was out to win at Michigan by leading strongly from the green flag. With the possibility of more rain on the horizon, the field focused on getting 100 laps of clean racing in to make the event official. But other than extending the yellow for the seven-car Franchitti incident to dry a few pesky weepers, the weather wasn't a factor.
Wheldon, who has struggled at midseason after starting 2007 as the hottest driver in the series, looked desperate to return to the Victory Circle, judging by some of the moves he made at midrace. Danica Patrick, who was directly following AGR teammate Franchitti at the time of the crash, had some harsh words for Wheldon.
"Dan drives really aggressively out there, you know," she said. "He said it himself on the pit lane at Milwaukee, that he's tougher.
"I don't know if tougher means rougher because he's not completely fair out there."
In addition to Franchitti and the two Target/Ganassi cars, Team Penske's Sam Hornish Jr. and all three Vision Racing entries also got swept up in the carnage. Hornish's and Dixon's crews got their cars back into drivable shape, allowing them to complete a couple of extra laps and move up in the standings past Franchitti, who was classified in 11th place.
It was a crazy day. I think we need to go home and think about how we race each other because what I saw out there wasn't pretty.
Thanks to winning the three bonus points for leading the most laps, Franchitti maintained his 24-point championship lead over Dixon.
"It's already sunken in that I'm a lucky guy," Franchitti said.
Meanwhile, a handful of cars waited out a lengthy cleanup and track-drying caution and resumed racing with 30 laps to go. Everyone was fully fueled to the finish.
Marco Andretti jumped the restart and was ordered to drop back, but he soon moved back to the front, challenging leader Kanaan. Patrick slid into third, fueling hopes of a first victory for the 2005 rookie of the year.
With 20 laps to go, AGR owner Michael Andretti ordered his drivers to hold station until there were 10 laps to go. Unfortunately, Patrick was the one who suffered misfortune; pressure sensors indicated her right rear tire was deflating by 1 pound per lap.
"This is like the nightmare of my life," Danica growled into her radio. "I cannot believe it."
She had to pit for a replacement, finishing a crestfallen seventh and putting the kibosh on an AGR 1-2-3. "That was my race to lose," she said. "I think I had the car to win the race.
"My teammates were really strong," Patrick continued. "But I still think we had the fastest car when it came down to it. We had the legs to win the race."
Instead, it was left to Kanaan and his protégé Andretti to fight it out over the last nine laps. Marco pulled alongside in Turn 2 several times, but the Brazilian was always able to nose ahead by the time they reached Turn 3 and could hold that advantage around the rest of the lap.
"Tony's gearing was optimal, and he started to pull me," Andretti said. "I'm just so glad Dario is all right. That was a big one."
Kanaan crossed the line .05 second ahead of Andretti for his third win of the season. It also solidified his third-place position in the IndyCar championship standings, 81 points behind Franchitti with four races to go.
"From a fan's standpoint, they had a lot of action," Kanaan summarized. "So it wasn't a boring race. But it was a crazy day.
"I think we need to go home and think about how we race each other because what I saw out there wasn't pretty."
TK said he was confident at the end that teammates Andretti and Patrick wouldn't do anything silly to jeopardize the team's finish.
"I thought it was going to be a good day because I knew one of us was going to win this thing," he said. "I held my line and he tried the outside a couple of times, but I think I had a little bit of a faster car than Marco did.
"Maybe not the fastest car on the track. But we played it well."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
You want crazy? Sunday's IndyCar crashfest at Michigan featured a five-hour rain delay, an upside-down Dario Franchitti and only eight cars running at the finish. Who better to restore some order than former champion Tony Kanaan?