INDIANAPOLIS - One lap to go, running on empty and a car bearing down on his tail.
After having the dominant car and the perfect game plan, Dario Franchitti still needed more Sunday — one break to win his second Indianapolis 500.
He got it in the form of a spectacular, airborne crash that brought out a yellow flag and allowed him to cross the line with a scant 1.6 gallons of fuel left.
That 1.6 gallons left him holding a quart of milk, a winner at the Brickyard for the second time in four years.
“Still running,” the winner told his crew over the radio as he crossed the finish line, while wreckers were moving out to scoop up debris from an accident that sent Mike Conway into the wall and to the hospital with a broken left leg.
The victory made Franchitti’s boss, Chip Ganassi, the first owner to win Indy and NASCAR’s Daytona 500 in the same year.
It validated the Scottish driver’s return to the IndyCar circuit two years after celebrating his 2007 Indy victory by making an unsuccessful move with Ganassi to NASCAR.
And, of course, it made Franchitti and crew look like the master tacticians they were on this day — working the gas pedal perfectly to stretch their final fill-up for the last 37 laps and edge out 2005 champion Dan Wheldon of England.
“Just get to the finish, see if you can get to the finish,” Franchitti said when asked about what was going through his mind over the last few laps.
He did, and so the story became about his second victory instead of Helio Castroneves’ fourth. Spiderman’s quest to tie A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears for most wins ever at the Brickyard essentially ended with an uncharacteristic mistake — stalling out while leaving the pits on the 146th lap.
It left Castroneves in need of a yellow-flag miracle at the end that never came, and he finished ninth after one last pit stop on the 192nd lap.
“Unfortunately, silly mistakes put us in the back,” Castroneves said. “I’m very disappointed. I’m more disappointed with the mistake.”
Meanwhile, Danica Patrick made no mistakes. After being booed during qualifying when she complained about a balky car, she picked and poked her way from 23rd to finish sixth.
Patrick never found her comfort zone in the 88-degree weather — at one point saying she wished she could make up as much time on the track as in the pits — but she was patient and disciplined and now has five top 10 finishes in six years.
Marco Andretti was third, followed by England’s Alex Lloyd and Scott Dixon.
“I’m very happy with the result, and the reasons we got it were that our pit stops rocked and we had a perfect strategy,” Patrick said.
Not so for Tony Kanaan, who finished 11th after starting last in the 33-car field and moving as high as second, less than half a second behind. His chance of becoming the first driver in 94 years of Indys to go from worst to first ended when he had to go to the pits for a splash of fuel with four laps to go.
“I hope I made it exciting out there,” Kanaan said.
More exciting than Franchitti might have wanted.
“I was concerned about running out of fuel. I was concerned about Tony. And then he pitted,” Franchitti said.
His crew started pressing their driver to conserve fuel with about 15 laps left. He did as he was told, and after leading 154 of the first 199 laps at speeds of up to 224.287 mph, he slowed steadily at the end — to 210 mph, then 209 and 206.
Wheldon started bearing down, positioning himself to make the last lap of the Indy 500 the first lap he had led all year on the circuit.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
That’s when the cars behind them went flying.
With the yellow flag out, Franchitti’s wife, actress Ashley Judd, put her hand over her head, hoping her man had enough fuel to make it. He did, and was on his way to a milk mustache in Victory Lane.
Both times he’s been there, he’s crossed the bricks without really racing. In 2007, he won when the race was shortened to 166 laps because of rain. This time, the end came under slow, yellow-flag conditions that froze the order of finish.
“One of the worst things you can do, and we’ve done it, is to finish a race with some fuel left,” Ganassi said.
Not to worry this time.
Ganassi won his fourth Indy and has one of those few pieces of history that aren’t owned by racing’s most successful owner, Roger Penske, who had an unusually bewildering day in his quest for a 16th Indy victory day.
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