There’s an old saying that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. While Dario Franchitti may not have had the fastest car today, a calculated gamble in pit strategy combined with the good luck associated with a rival’s misfortune combined to send Franchitti to victory lane tonight in Chicago.
Our resident IndyCar correspondent Matt Lennon takes a look at a truly action-packed race in which the top-ten drivers were covered by one second after 300 miles of racing!
Qualifying was a true indication of the competitiveness of the series, with 29 cars (excluding the Indy 500, it was the most to start a race since Las Vegas in 1997) all separated from pole position to last spot by less than one second. Ryan Briscoe was the quickest of all, and lined up alongside Franchitti for the 200-lap contest.
Chicago saw lots of returning drivers to the series, from Jay Howard and Sarah Fisher driving her cars, Tomas Scheckter filling a seat at Conquest Racing, Ana Beatriz in the Dreyer & Reinbold seat, Davey Hamilton racing for Luczo De Ferran Dragon and Ed Carpenter fielding a combined Panther / Vision Racing entry. Additionally, for the first time ever, five ladies were participating in the race. It was a full house in pit lane.
From the drop of the green flag, Ryan Briscoe was off in a hurry and opened up a quick gap but was soon reeled back in by the field. On Lap 5, Alex Lloyd nosed Raphael Matos, who in turn pushed Tomas Scheckter into the wall, bringing out the first caution period of the day. It was a case of “wrong place at the wrong time” for Scheckter, who was looking good early on.
The restart came on Lap 15 and while Briscoe tried again, Marco Andretti didn’t allow him to open up a similar gap, and was quickly filling his mirrors trying to get past. By Lap 44, Dario Franchitti, who started second, had dropped to eighth place, but was still less than a second behind leader Briscoe and third-placed Will Power, his main championship rival. With Ganassi team-mate Scott Dixon further back still, it was looking as though Ganassi hadn’t found the right balance in their car for this race.
Another car heading backwards through the field was Danica Patrick. Despite starting twelfth, she was frequently the victim of rivals exploiting her slipstream to get past, which she was having difficulty reciprocating. About this time, it was noted that all five of the ladies in the race was running together nose-to-tail, albeit toward the back of the pack.
Marco Andretti was the first to blink and make his first pit stop under green flag conditions. Briscoe was in a lap later, with the rest on sequence following soon afterward. Once all the pit stops had cycled through, Briscoe resumed in the lead with Marco all over his gearbox.
A short caution period halted proceedings on Lap 78, for a debris clean-up job at the exit of Turn 4 as Ana Beatriz has lightly scraped the wall. The pits opened and the majority of the field took the opportunity for a top up. As they left their respective pit stalls, KV Racing team-mates E.J. Viso and Takuma Sato tangled in the pit lane, forcing heavy delays on both. Neither lost a lap however by virtue of the caution period still in effect.
Just prior to the green flag resumption of racing, the caution was extended as Alex Tagliani, Vitor Meira and Hideki Mutoh tangled. Mutoh had earlier left the pits minus his left-front wheel. The FAZZT driver made it back to the pits and as Meira passed for his own repairs, Tags made his opinions of the popular Brazilian quite clear via some not-so-creative hand gestures.
One driver who didn’t pit during all this was Sarah Fisher, who found herself in the lead for the first time since 2002. Once the restart eventually came on Lap 91, Fisher was quickly passed by Ryan Briscoe, however she then managed to make herself a very competitive, albeit unexpected challenger for all those holding positions third and lower. Fisher held onto the inside line of the track, completely legally as she was racing for position and running in clear air, until her pit stop on Lap 112.
At the halfway mark, Scott Dixon, the oval-course championship leader was languishing down in eleventh place, struggling to make any headway on the field ahead. Not so for Will Power. Surrounded by critics doubting his abilities on the oval racing discipline, Power was giving his race engineer heart palpitations with his ambitious, yet highly entertaining and highly competitive showing, running consistently near the front well past the halfway mark, even catching Marco Andretti and Ryan Briscoe ahead of him.
The next pit stops again came under green flag conditions, with Briscoe and Andretti pitting on Lap 136, with Power in on Lap 137.
The final caution of the evening came on Lap 170. Freshly repaired from his lap five skirmish with Tomas Scheckter, Alex Lloyd was circulating mainly for practice, and on the exit of Turn 4, lost control all by himself, sliding into the infield and coming to a halt on the grass, all without hitting the wall.
The field headed for the final pit stops, and here was where the race ended up being won. Pitting from eighth place, Team Ganassi engineer Chris Simmons made the decision to give Dario Franchitti fuel only without changing tyres. This resulted in a very fast pit stop, vaulting Franchitti up seven spots and into the lead.
Power’s pit stop did not go to plan, with word quickly spreading that not enough fuel had gone into the No 12 Penske car to get him to the finish.
Franchitti took the final restart at the head of the field and all of a sudden was back in contention. Will Power was close behind, but questions about his fuel level remained a talking point. Unfortunately, five laps from the end, this question was answered as Power dropped right back, clearly almost empty, forcing him to pit again for a splash of fuel. The worst possible situation for his championship lead had become a reality, as he ended up finishing 16th and 1 lap down.
This left Dario to win by 0.0042, or just less than a car-length ahead of Dan Wheldon, who kept his nose clean and was competitive all race long. Marco Andretti, pressuring for the lead all day, came home an impressive third.
A new record was set for the most number of different leaders in a race, with 11 drivers registering at least one lap at the front, breaking the previous record from the 1999 Atlanta race.
The implications on the overall series championship following Chicago were significant. With Dario winning, and Will Power’s fuel-related misfortunes resulting in a 36-point swing to the Ganassi driver, the gap separating first and second in the championship was now only 23 points, with three races remaining.
Despite being magnanimous in defeat, Power was confident he had shown his critics he was just as competitive on ovals as the road-courses. Only a week remains before the next race, with Kentucky Speedway calling for its chance to register an impact on this fascinating chase to the championship, which is now reaching fever pitch!
[Original images via GP Update]