- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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JOLIET, Ill. -- Dario Franchitti's prediction months ago that the 2007 IndyCar Series championship would not be decided until the last corner of the last lap at Chicagoland Speedway turned out to be correct.
Franchitti, who watched Scott Dixon whittle his 65-point championship lead down to three points in the second half of the season, looked as though he was going to have to settle for second to Dixon on Sunday in both the Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 and the title sweepstakes.
But Dixon's Target/Ganassi Racing Dallara-Honda started to cough on the backstretch of the last lap, starved of fuel. A very surprised Scotsman darted past his stricken rival with less than a mile to go to claim the race win and the $1 million IndyCar Series championship for Andretti Green Racing.
"I was drafting him and going for the slingshot, and just as I pulled out, I saw him twitch and we shot up the track," Franchitti said. "It was all I could do to avoid hitting him, and I went a lot higher than I would have liked.
"Once I collected that, I knew the race and the championship was ours, and I went crazy from there to the finish. There was a lot of shouting on the radio and fist pumping."
It was a stunning reversal of fortune in a race in which Franchitti frequently looked like an also-ran while Dixon showed he had the pace to win. He simply needed to run one more lap under caution behind the pace car.
"I think Dario was in about the same position as we were, and he just worked the system a little better than we did today," remarked Target/Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull. "We did everything we needed to do to try to win a championship, and that's just the way life is.
"We just were a little short at the end, and we needed another lap of yellow."
Appropriately, Dixon and Franchitti ran 1-2 entering the final 50 laps of the race. Dario stretched his mileage longer than anyone else all day, and he had benefited from being able to pit under yellow on Lap 139 when Panther Racing's Vitor Meira crashed in Turn 4.
Sensing they could make the finish without stopping again, the Ganassi team brought Dixon in for a fuel top-off on Lap 148.
Franchitti also pitted, and the two resumed their private battle for the race and the championship when action resumed on Lap 152.
Dixon yielded the lead to Hornish and dropped into his draft to save fuel, but with Franchitti still fifth, the title would go to the New Zealander.
"Those Penske cars [Hornish and Helio Castroneves] were quick," Franchitti said. "I was trying to make a fuel number, but I couldn't do it unless I was stuck back in the pack. [Strategist] John Anderson was on the radio telling me fuel is critical and today was a high point for him. He did a tremendous job.
"Sometimes I kind of get a little bit hot under collar, but I was very calm in the car all day," he added. "As hard as I was trying, I couldn't make anything happen. The one thing I knew I could do was save fuel."
As the laps wound down, Hornish, Wheldon and Patrick all had to make splash-and-go stops, and Wheldon gave a precursor of things to come when his Ganassi car ran dry on Lap 194 and stopped on course.
Then Patrick spun in the pit entry on Lap 195, and the Dixon camp erupted in a wild cheer, believing that the ensuing full-course caution would allow its man to win under yellow or at least race to the finish without pitting.
On the Lap 198 restart, Franchitti briefly nosed ahead before Dixon retook the lead on the backstraight. Although a lap down, Hornish tried to follow Dixon on the inside, but it wasn't enough to push the Ganassi car ahead, and on the final lap, Franchitti pulled to the outside entering Turn 3.
The scene was set for a drag race to the finish, only for the No. 9 Target car to slow dramatically. With Hornish and company all a lap down, Dixon's second place wasn't in jeopardy.
But his hopes for a second IndyCar Series championship were toast.
"I just don't think Dario's car was as quick as the Penske cars and Dan and myself," said Dixon, who won the 2003 IndyCar Series championship. "Midway in the race, we knew we had a very good shot at the championship. But going into the last restart, I knew it was going to be close. Going into 3, it seemed to cut out of fuel, and that was it.
"I think Dario is a great competitor, and to be honest, if anyone out there could win the championship, I'm glad to see him win it as he has done," the New Zealander added. "He's done a superb job to win a championship, and he hasn't let things get to him."
Indeed, Franchitti endured a couple of tumultuous months after he built a 65-point championship lead with a victory in late June at Richmond International Raceway. That was his last win before Sunday's triumph at Chicago, and in between, he twice walked away from spectacular accidents in which his No. 27 Canadian Club car got airborne.
The wreck at Michigan International Speedway, caused when his car touched wheels with an overaggressive Wheldon while fighting for the lead, was particularly frightening.
"The biggest mental challenge this year was jumping in the car in Kentucky, five days after flipping the car in Michigan," Franchitti said. "To get over that barrier I thought if I can do that, I can handle anything that's thrown at me."
The biggest mental challenge this year was jumping in the car in Kentucky, five days after flipping the car in Michigan.
With those chilling shunts as a backdrop, Franchitti could have been forgiven for cruising down the championship stretch. But he ran as hard as ever, notching up plenty of laps in the lead even if he wasn't winning races.
In all, Franchitti led 718 laps in 2007 compared with Dixon's 291. They each won four races, topped only by Tony Kanaan's tally of five.
Kanaan finished sixth in Sunday's race and third in the championship.
A miscommunication with teammate Marco Andretti cost Franchitti the race at Infineon Raceway and almost the championship. But under Anderson's leadership, AGR's No. 27 team was able to maintain its focus, even when the story broke on the championship-deciding weekend that Franchitti reportedly won't be defending his Indianapolis 500 and Indy Racing League championship titles.
He is expected to announce a multiyear contract with Ganassi Racing's stock car operation within the next two weeks.
"The most important thing for me today was drive a good race and give 100 percent," Franchitti said. "I did the job my guys wanted me to do, and that was more important to me than the result. I don't know if it's because I won the 500 and that took pressure off, but that was my thought going into the race.
"Winning the 500 was such a great feeling," he added. "This is different, and because it's the whole year rolled into one, it means a hell of a lot."
The phrase "gentleman racer" can be derogatory, but when applied to Franchitti, it's a true compliment. In victory or defeat, he's a class act, and he races and carries himself with style and panache.
It's too bad he apparently won't be sticking with the IndyCar Series for an encore, because American open-wheel racing is going to lose a hell of an ambassador.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.