The Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS — Dario Franchitti prayed for rain as the dark clouds gathered above and fast cars filled his mirrors.
“It was going to come down to a dogfight, and there’s a lot of strong cars,” the Scotsman said. “Whatever happened, if it came down to that dogfight, it was going to be hard, so I was hoping for the rain.”
He got it, winning an abbreviated Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, another bittersweet day for the Andretti family at America’s richest race.
Franchitti inherited the lead when the leaders pitted one last time for fuel, even as the skies darkened, and then drove slowly to the checkered flag in a downpour when the race was stopped after 166 laps, or 415 of the scheduled 500 miles.
“Our roll of the dice proved to be the lucky one,” a jubilant Franchitti said. “I made a couple of good restarts and the rain came.”
None too soon by Franchitti’s reckoning.
As the dark clouds drew ever closer, crew chief John Anderson told him on the radio, “The rain’s eight blocks away.”
“Come on!” Franchitti said. “I was just hoping it would start soon.”
The race had already been interrupted by rain for three hours shortly after the midway point, and Franchitti won it under a caution light brought out when teammate Marco Andretti crashed three laps from the premature finish.
It was a confusing and difficult day for nearly everyone.
A third of the race was run under caution — 11 yellow flags, 55 laps in all — and the winning average speed was more than 30 mph slower than the record.
“Restart after restart,” said runner-up Scott Dixon. “It’s just one of those days where you feel like you haven’t even raced. It’s sort of being on the freeway and watching lots of people smash into each other. It’s just a frustrating day in general.”
Not for the 34-year-old Franchitti, who got the biggest win of his life and gave his team its second Indy victory in three years.
Franchitti made a victory lap of the 2.5-mile oval in the heavy rain as actress wife Ashley Judd, soaking wet in a summer dress, climbed the pit wall and dashed toward the victory celebration.
Once Franchitti got out of his car, he was mobbed, hugged and kissed by teammates Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick and Michael Andretti.
“I can’t believe it. It’s the Indy 500!” Franchitti said. “To be a member of this club is fantastic. I kind of have half of an idea of what it means to win this race. I’m so happy.”
Two-time winner Helio Castroneves said Franchitti’s win proves it’s “not the young guy, not the fast guy, but the smart guy, and you have to put yourself in the right place at the right time.”
Franchitti, who is expected to collect at least $1.5 million from a total purse of more than $10.5 million when the checks are handed out at the victory dinner Monday night, led 34 laps and averaged 151.744 mph, far off the record 185.81 mph by Arie Luyendyk in 1990.
Castroneves finished third, and Sam Hornish Jr. was fourth. The rest of the top 10 were Ryan Briscoe, Scott Sharp, Tomas Scheckter, Patrick, Davey Hamilton and Vitor Meira.
Patrick was the only one of the three women in the field to have an impact. Sarah Fisher finished 18th, two laps behind. Rookie Milka Duno ran no higher than 22nd before crashing after 65 laps and ended up 31st.
It was some consolation for the Andretti family, which has seen little but bad luck since patriarch Mario Andretti won in 1969. Andretti Green Racing had five cars in the field and at one point was running 1-2-3 with Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Patrick.
Kanaan, Franchitti’s best friend, led a race-high 83 laps and appeared in control when rain poured down the first time after 113 laps, just four laps after he took the lead with a pass of Andretti on a restart.
Franchitti was fifth when the race resumed and fell all the way to 14th after a pit stop to replace a tire. After that, Franchitti had a very fast car indeed. He moved through traffic under the green flag, getting to seventh on lap 131, just before the leaders began making green flag pit stops.
Kanaan still appeared to be the guy to beat after the first rainstorm, fighting off Marco Andretti after the long delay and holding the top spot. But after Marty Roth crashed on lap 151, bringing out another yellow flag — and even knowing rain was moving closer — Kanaan, Hornish and several other contenders chose to pit for fuel and tires on lap 155. Franchitti, who led three times in the race and had moved up to third place, stayed out and led the rest of the way.
“That’s the Indianapolis 500,” Castroneves said. “You bet it all. Dario took a gamble. He’ll be happy with the result and the paycheck.”
Andretti, who lost this race last year as a 19-year-old rookie when Hornish passed him on the final straightaway, slipped into the pack after the rain delay and was trying hard to move back into contention late in the race when he tried to make a pass in traffic. He came together on the backstretch with Dan Wheldon, who gave Andretti Green its first Indy victory in 2005.
Andretti’s car veered hard into the outside wall, slid back across the track in traffic and flipped on its top after it hit the infield grass. It finally came to rest on its wheels, and Andretti climbed out uninjured.
“My mirror was broke, so I had no idea who was outside of me. I apologize. I was upside down for a long time,” Marco said. “I’m one lucky guy.
“I’m going to be bruised, but to come out of that bruised, I’m going to be happy. What’s making me overcome the bruises right now is I’m so proud of Dario Franchitti.”
The two team wins have been about all the good luck the Andrettis have had at Indy for the last four decades, but Michael Andretti, who finished 13th on Sunday, wasn’t complaining.
“It’s still all about winning, isn’t it?” said the man who has led more laps at Indy than any other non-winner. “That’s why we have five cars out there. At the end, we want one of them winning. I’m so very happy for Dario personally. He’s been such a big part of AGR since day one.”
Any chance Kanaan had to win evaporated on lap 156 when Jaques Lazier crashed in front of him. Kanaan spun, barely avoiding the inside barrier near the pit entrance. He rolled into the pits with a flat tire and was later penalized when his crew changed all four tires in a closed pit, instead of just the one that was flat. He wound up 12th, just ahead of team co-owner Michael Andretti.
“It’s one of those sort of bittersweet moments,” Franchitti said, referring to the red flag. “I’m looking at it and I’m seeing Tony leading the thing and looking like he’s going to win it. I’m thinking, ‘Well, I think my car is good enough here, but at the same time, my best friend’s leading this race, my other two teammates (Marco Andretti and Patrick) are second and third. It was looking like a pretty good day for us.
“The selfish side of me’s thinking, ‘I hope we go back racing because I think we can do something.’ I wouldn’t be anywhere near as happy as I am now (if Kanaan had won), but it probably would have been the second best result of the day.”