Commentary

Penske and Ganassi crews whiff big

Updated: May 29, 2011, 7:28 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Target Ganassi Racing and Team Penske were supposed to clean up in the 100th anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500, just like they always do.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the checkered flag at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Target team botched its fuel calculations -- again -- and Penske perfection wasn't present Sunday in a race that Roger Penske has won a record 15 times.

In the end, Chip Ganassi wound up with a third-place finish, but it was achieved by Graham Rahal in Ganassi's newly-formed "satellite" team. The main Target duo of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti could manage only sixth and 12th places, respectively.

Even that was better than Roger Penske's three-car operation. Will Power led the Penske attack in 14th place, three positions better than three-time Indianapolis winner Helio Castroneves. Ryan Briscoe completed a miserable day for Penske by crashing out on the 158th lap.

While the Penske cars were curiously uncompetitive all month at the Brickyard, the Ganassi machines looked like the cars to beat. Dixon led 73 laps and Franchitti an additional 51, but both drivers ran out of fuel on the last lap despite running wildly different pit stop strategies.

[+] EnlargeRyan Briscoe
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesTeam Penske's Ryan Briscoe, left, got caught in a wreck with Townsend Bell to end both their days early.

Franchitti pitted from the lead under yellow on Lap 164 and appeared to be in position to work back through the pack, only to have to switch to fuel-saving mode with a handful of laps remaining. Dixon made his final stop with 21 laps to go, but the car didn't receive enough fuel and he ran dry in the final run to the flag.

Dixon's final lap was timed at 187 mph, while Franchitti's last tour was just 111 mph. Winner Dan Wheldon's last lap was run at more than 219 mph.

"We definitely lost that one," Ganassi said.

"We split our strategy and thought we had both ends covered. But obviously that didn't happen and we need to find out why. With Dario, we needed a lap or two of yellow. I can't tell you what happened with Dixon. He should have made it."

Dixon was certainly not happy with the result.

"Between Dario and myself, we had this one pretty well covered," he said. "We went on a bit of a run fuel-wise late in the race and that's what paid off for us last year. But we short-fueled -- why, I don't know

"We stopped 10 laps later on than anybody else on any strategy so there's no way we should have run out of fuel," he added. "I definitely leave here thinking that I should have won my second 500."

Franchitti, who looked in line to score his third win in the Memorial Day Classic, refused to throw his team under the bus.

"I'm absolutely devastated with the result," Franchitti said. "We definitely had the car to win it and I fought as hard as I could all day to get in that position. The guys in the Target team did perfect pit stops and had the car really well balanced and I drove as hard as I could all day.

"The guys on the timing stand made a decision and I can't second-guess them. In my time with Team Target we've won so much, a lot of it through making calls like that. They're a great team. Scott and the No. 9 team aren't feeling that great, either. To have two potential race-winning cars and come away with nothing …"

Meanwhile, Roger Penske had his worst day at Indianapolis in the 10 years since his team returned to IMS in 2001 after a five-year absence due to the open-wheel split.

It wasn't as bad as when his drivers Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. failed to qualify for the 500 in 1995, but it was bad nonetheless. It marked the first time that Penske failed to place a car in the top 10 since 1992.

[+] EnlargeDario Franchitti, Scott Dixon
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesThe day started wonderfully for Dario Franchitti, center left, and Scott Dixon, and it nearly ended that way. Nearly.

"When you come here to win and you don't run up front it's disappointing," Penske said. "We have to go back and see what we did right and what we did wrong.

"This place is amazing," Penske added. "Something always happens and the cars that dominated -- the 9 and 10 cars -- didn't finish up front."

Power and Castroneves both lost wheels during pit stops and never looked like contenders.

"We thought we had good speeds in practice and all of a sudden we got a surprise in qualifying," Castroneves said. "Then in the race it was all downhill. We really struggled a lot. It definitely seemed like the turbulence of this season is continuing. It wasn't a bad month but certainly we learned a lot for the upcoming ovals. We have ups and downs and today was a down."

Perhaps the only bright spot for Penske was that Power actually increased his IndyCar Series championship lead over Franchitti by two points (to 16) thanks to a better qualifying position.

That was little consolation to Power.

"We left the rear wheel loose and as it came off, it knocked the bleed screw off and we had no brakes," Power said. "We had to fix it at the next stop and went a lap down. Then we were fighting for the rest of the day.

"I think we had a good car in the end there but we were a lap down."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.