Franchitti wins Chicagoland shootout with Dixon for first IndyCar title
JOLIET, Ill. -- Dario Franchitti topped off "a crazy season" with an unlikely victory Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, winning his first IndyCar Series title in what might be his farewell to open-wheel racing.
The difference for the Scot in the PEAK Antifreeze Indy 300 was his ability to squeeze out half a lap more than Scott Dixon on their final load of fuel, with the New Zealander running out of ethanol while leading two turns from the end of the 200-lap race.
Franchitti, who nearly saw the chance of winning his first open-wheel title slip away with crashes in each of the four races leading up to the season finale, could hardly believe his good fortune after struggling with traffic and an ill-handling car most of the day.
"It's been a crazy season," said Franchitti, who also won his first Indianapolis 500 in May. "There were times when we thought we were looking really good and times when things just wouldn't go right. But we got some of our mojo back from the middle of the season, so I couldn't be happier."
The 34-year-old Franchitti is expected to leave the IndyCar Series for NASCAR in 2008, joining rival team owner Chip Ganassi's Nextel Cup team. But he remained mum about the change Sunday, preferring to enjoy his new role as champion.
"I don't know right now," he said of the move to NASCAR. "I just want to enjoy this, party with my team tonight, and then we'll decide."
Asked to characterize his season in five words or less, Franchitti grinned and replied: "I can do it in three words. No, two. Up and down.
"It's been a great season and I'd like to say I enjoyed every minute of it, but there were a couple of moments when I was upside down that it wasn't so much fun," he added, referring to terrifying airborne crashes that he walked away from on consecutive weeks last month in Michigan and Kentucky. "But it's been a blast."
Before his rash of crashes, combined with a string of victories by Dixon, Franchitti had built a 65-point lead. But he went into Sunday's race ahead of Dixon by just three points and knowing whichever driver finished ahead of the other would win the title.
With Dixon ahead of Franchitti, both stopped to top off their 22-gallon fuel tanks during a caution 54 laps from the end on the 1½-mile oval.
It looked as if Dixon, the 2003 series champion, was going to pull it off, taking the race lead when Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dan Wheldon ran out of fuel on Lap 194 of the 200-lap event.
With Franchitti right on Dixon's rear wing and both expecting to have to make a fuel-only stop that could have cost them dearly, Danica Patrick, one of Franchitti's Andretti Green Racing teammates, stopped for fuel on Lap 195 and brought out a yellow flag when she spun entering the pits.
With a few more laps of caution to help them conserve fuel, both leaders tried to make it to the end without stopping.
The green flag waved with two laps to go and Franchitti drove to the outside of Dixon and pulled alongside. But he wasn't able to get past and, as the two drove down the long backstretch at about 215 mph on the final lap, it appeared Dixon had it made.
But, as they approached Turn 3, Dixon's car suddenly slowed, Franchitti drove by and went on to win the race. Dixon coasted over the finish line 1.844 seconds behind, in second place in both the race and the championship. Franchitti won the title and the $1 million prize that goes with it by 13 points.
Franchitti was blown away by the finish.
After the new champion parked his car and climbed out, he knelt behind the rear wing for a few seconds of quiet thought.
"Most of the race I was just sitting there," said Franchitti, who led only 10 laps. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't pass the guys in front because they were running side-by-side and, at times, the car wasn't handling so well.
"We came down that back stretch [on the last lap], and I was drafting him. I was trying to get the slingshot. Just as I pulled out, I saw him slow down and I almost hit the back of him.
A Team Effort
Dario Franchitti's first IndyCar title was also a series-record third overall for Andretti Green Racing.
"Some good fuel saving. Some great strategy by my boys. The whole Andretti Green team, they're the best," he added.
Dixon could hardly believe his fate.
"It's just a shame that it came down to a fuel race," he said, shrugging his shoulders in disappointment. "Our car was clearly quicker all day. It wasn't our day. The 27 [Franchitti] was getting better fuel mileage all day, and that's what it came down to. It's tough, man."
"I can honestly take a beating gracefully if you get beaten on even terms. But I guess we did. We had the same amount of fuel and we didn't use it wisely."
Franchitti started from the pole, but lost the lead at the start and never appeared to have a real shot at the win or the title until the end as Dixon got ahead of him and stayed most of the race.
Meanwhile, Penske Racing teammates Sam Hornish Jr., the defending series champion, and Helio Castroneves dominated until both had to give up track position late in the race for fuel stops. Hornish and Castroneves led 90 and 56 laps, respectively, and wound up third and fourth, a lap behind the leaders.
Patrick, who spent most of the day running in the top six, wound up 11th, while Tony Kanaan, another of the Andretti Green drivers and the only other title contender heading into the 17th and final race of the season, had to pit with a flat tire early in the race, got out of sequence with the leaders and finished out of contention in sixth.
Marco Andretti, the fourth Andretti Green entry, brought out a caution on Lap 35 when it appeared his suspension broke, sending his car hard into the wall. The son of team co-owner Michael Andretti was taken to a hospital, where he was released after a CT scan was negative.
Vitor Meira crashed on Lap 136 and the ensuing caution lasted 15 laps as track workers had to repair the energy-absorbing SAFER Barrier. The yellow came out with Dixon making a scheduled pit stop and Franchitti the only leader who had not gone in the pits at that point.
That was when both teams decided to bring the leaders in to top off their fuel tanks, setting up the dramatic finish.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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