- John Schwarb
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LEXINGTON, Ohio -- Leading the Honda Indy 200 with nine laps to go, Dario Franchitti peeled off onto the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course's pit road. He owned a gap of some 16 seconds over Scott Dixon, and a splash of fuel was all that was needed to get to the end.
A month ago, Franchitti probably makes that stop, comes out ahead and cruises to victory.
But not now. Not against the one driver in the IndyCar Series hotter than he is.
Dixon, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, won his series-record-tying third straight race Sunday on the 2.258-mile, 13-turn road course, cutting further into Franchitti's points lead. The Andretti Green Racing driver won three times in a five-race span, starting at Indianapolis and ending at Iowa and Richmond, building a 65-point lead over Dixon in the process. With Dixon prevailing at Watkins Glen, Nashville and Mid-Ohio, the lead is now 24.
"Coming into this weekend, I think after qualifying I was like, you know, this might be the end of our streak with two, going for three," said the 2003 series champion, who qualified sixth after finishing last among the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday afternoon but won on Sunday. "I know we sort of had a bit of luck on our side. Things have been rolling our way."
The luck began immediately for Dixon on his 27th birthday, as he went from sixth to second after an opening-lap melee that left fourth-qualifying Marco Andretti upside-down.
Pole sitter Helio Castroneves led the field out of the keyhole second turn to the green flag at Turn 3 (under the Mid-Ohio configuration, the finish line is off Turn 13 and the starting line is at the start of Turn 3) and pulled away slightly with a good jump. Behind him, outside-pole qualifier Danica Patrick was being caught by second-row Andretti Green teammates Tony Kanaan and Andretti.
Kanaan bumped Patrick, sending her into the grass off Turn 4. That contact sent Kanaan into a quarter-spin and into wheel-to-wheel contact with Andretti, who did a half roll and ended up on his roll bar. Safety officials tipped the car onto its side to allow Andretti to get out, unhurt and unimpressed.
"We all can't fit through there. It's a bummer when people act that way on starts and things just get crazy. This isn't the first time," Andretti said. "I tried the outside, and that was not going to work because I thought Danica was off the track, so I wanted to get all the way over to the right to avoid contact. It's a bummer."
Luckily for AGR, it was a one-team bummer. Patrick restarted ninth after the incident and never got back to where she started, but she was fast enough for fifth, her best finish away from an oval track. Kanaan went to the pits under yellow for tires and fuel, and the off-sequence allowed him to lead 13 laps later. He finished fourth with a strong Dallara-Honda.
"At the end of the day, from the start we had to the finish we have now, I would say I'm happy," said Kanaan, third in series points but 111 behind Franchitti. "I was very fast, but I couldn't pass a lot of people."
The lack of passing up front was the only nit in a picture-perfect day for the Indy Racing League, albeit a glaring one. Crowds were solid at Mid-Ohio, a longtime home for Champ Car and sports car events but never an IndyCar stop until this season. With Honda's stronghold in Ohio, the series is likely to return. And if it gets mid-70s weather again in July, there should be an investigation.
There were eight lead changes among Castroneves, who finished third, Dixon, Franchitti and Kanaan, but all came through strategy when one driver pitted and another stayed out. That's how Franchitti inherited the lead for the first time at Lap 71.
"It was impossible to pass today, which was very frustrating," Franchitti said. "We were just trying to make things happen, trying to save some fuel. We tried at the end not to take tires."
Franchitti stayed out as long as he could before making his final stop at Lap 76, and knew that his 16-second lead would be largely chewed up by the long, slow trek down pit road. But he was surprised to emerge not only second but two and a half seconds behind Dixon.
The team is definitely on a roll;, everybody is full of confidence. Things just seem to click a little easier, your decisions come a bit quicker.
"I thought the fact we did three laps I think longer than Scott, each lap was a 68.0 [seconds], which is as quick as we've gone all race," Franchitti said. "When he was getting back up to speed, we come out, we're still two or three seconds behind him. I'd love to know how that happened."
Chalk it up to a guy who is having everything fall his way.
"It was tough. The biggest problem for us today was there were so many strategies. We had to keep our eye on Helio, we had to keep our eye on T.K., who was way out of sync, and also Dario," Dixon said. "Dario was the tough one at the end because he kept running, he kept going. I think they were all waiting for a yellow, which would totally hurt us big-time. So luckily there wasn't a caution in the last few laps, which would have made it a lot easier for Dario."
Nope, the only other caution outside the opening-lap incident came at Lap 47, when Sam Hornish Jr. of Team Penske spun off the track. It was smooth traveling from then on, allowing the No. 9 Ganassi entry to work up steadily from fourth at that point to the win, his ninth overall. Kenny Brack (1998) and Dan Wheldon (2005) are the only other drivers to have won three consecutive races.
Dixon will gun for a fourth in two weeks at Michigan after a long-awaited week off, but with a bigger target in mind -- a second series title.
"We're making the car a little bit better for myself, just zoning in, I guess," Dixon said. "The team is definitely on a roll; everybody is full of confidence. Things just seem to click a little easier, your decisions come a bit quicker. There's not one or two things that changed that make any difference for how we've picked up these wins, it's just everybody is working together a lot better."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Scott Dixon is showing no signs of letting up, winning his third IndyCar Series race in a row with Sunday's victory at Mid-Ohio, writes John Schwarb.