Franchitti caps return with another title
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Dario Franchitti basked in Victory Lane, getting showered by an enormous amount of red, white and blue confetti.
Yellow, nowhere to be found.
How appropriate, because on a day when no caution flags came out, Franchitti reigned supreme over the IndyCar series again.
Franchitti emerged victorious from one of the closest points races in series history Saturday, winning the season-ending Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the first caution-free IRL race ever. He used a significantly different fuel strategy than the other two title contenders, Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe, and was rewarded with his second championship in three years.
"I still can't believe it," said Franchitti, the scent of champagne obvious on his soaked racesuit an hour after the checkered flag came out in his honor. "Really, I can't."
Maybe it was all in the numbers: On the 10th day of the 10th month of the year, Franchitti's No. 10 car won a championship -- the 10th win of the season for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, to boot.
Franchitti's IndyCar contract with Ganassi was drawn up on a cocktail napkin. In the end, it was genius.
"There's a lot of guys who can win races," Ganassi said. "There aren't as many who can win championships."
Franchitti sat back in third place, about 25 seconds behind Dixon and Briscoe, saving fuel over much of the final 50 laps. When his two fellow contenders pitted late, the title was his.
Only a caution could have saved Dixon and Briscoe, and somehow, that flag was never needed.
"How great is my husband at being fast while saving fuel?" said actress Ashley Judd, Franchitti's wife, who shrieked and raised her arms high in triumph when it was all over.
How about better than anyone else in the field?
"I'm thinking, 'C'mon baby, don't run out of fuel here,'" Franchitti said. "And she didn't."
Dixon, Franchitti's teammate in the Ganassi garage, was second in the points standings. Franchitti finished with 616 points, Dixon had 605 and Briscoe -- who led 103 of the 200 laps for Penske Racing -- finished with 604.
"It's tough," Briscoe said. "But I'm young. I'll be back."
The average speed of 201.420 mph was the second-quickest in IRL history, behind only the 207.151 mph at California in 2003. And there had been six IRL races with only one yellow caution flag, two of them this season, but never before a race that was incident free.
It was a three-man race for the title, and from the very beginning Saturday, a three-man race at Homestead, too.
Dixon, Briscoe and Franchitti opened a lead of nearly 1½ seconds by the time the race was 10 laps old and piled on from there -- 2½ seconds after 15 laps, 3½ seconds after 20 laps, 10 seconds by the 30-lap mark.
By the time the race was half over, the three contenders were the only ones on the lead lap.
"There was two races," Castroneves said. "The top three guys, and the rest of the field."
Outside of the three title contenders going back and forth, the only drama was in the pits: Danica Patrick and Dan Wheldon -- who have some history, going back to Milwaukee in 2007 when they brushed cars during the race and brushed bodies on pit road after the race -- collided again during a pit stop with about 45 laps left, sending both far back in the pack.
"I've got a lot left in me. I think next year will be even better," said Patrick, the closest she's come yet to confirming she'll return to IndyCars in 2010.
Really, though, this race and championship might have been decided when Briscoe and Dixon pitted together with 56 laps remaining, whereas Franchitti came in six laps later. So when Briscoe and Dixon came in again to get a splash of fuel with about seven laps left, Franchitti stayed on the track, knowing he had enough to get to the finish.
When Briscoe left the pit that final time, Franchitti whizzed past right before his eyes -- and with that, the title was decided.
"You always think there's always going to be a yellow," Dixon said. "We just came up a little bit short on fuel."
There was definitely some irony at play, in terms of fuel conservation helping Franchitti to a title.
Dixon was two turns away from a race -- and season -- victory in the 2007 finale at Chicagoland when he ran out of gas. Franchitti passed Dixon's rapidly slowing car with ease for the win, which was enough to get his name etched that year on the giant silver trophy that honors IRL champions.
Franchitti jumped to NASCAR after winning that IRL title in 2007.
He won't toy with that again.
"I got to go away, have a bit of a holiday, and realize what I was missing," Franchitti said. "I'm absolutely where I should be."
Last season was a lost season for Franchitti, who struggled with stock cars, missed several races with a broken ankle and saw his year end unceremoniously when the team folded over a lack of sponsor dollars. Ganassi welcomed him back to IndyCars, and together, they reached the top once again.
"Definitely loving it right now," Franchitti said.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press