Months after Wheldon’s death, Franchitti dedicates third 500 victory to pal

INDIANAPOLIS – Dan Wheldon couldn’t win his third Indianapolis 500. Dario Franchitti did it for him.

And if it wasn’t going to be Franchitti, then it would be Scott Dixon. Maybe even Tony Kanaan.

No matter what, one of Wheldon’s best buddies was going to Victory Lane.

In the end, they celebrated a 1-2-3 sweep that honored their missing friend.

Franchitti stamped his name in the record books with his third Indy 500 victory Sunday, a day that started and ended as a tribute to Wheldon, who won the race a year ago but was killed in an Oct. 16 crash in the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

As his three friends lined up with six laps remaining for the final restart – Kanaan out front, Chip Ganassi teammates Franchitti and Dixon second and third – they couldn’t help but wonder if Wheldon was at play.

“Kind of like old times, the three of us back and forwards,” Franchitti said. “I thought, ‘Dan is laughing at us right now going at it.’ “

It was a fitting finish, even if the elation for Franchitti’s win was tempered by the heartbreak for two other deserving drivers. Dixon, a one-time Indy 500 winner, temporarily relocated his family to St. Petersburg, Fla., to support Wheldon’s wife and two sons, and Kanaan, now 0-for-11 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had openly wept following the death of his former teammate.

“I think a lot of us that were close to Dan, you know, you wanted it that little bit more,” Dixon said. “I guess maybe in the back of your mind, you figured he would probably help you out today, too. I think in that situation, seeing how it lined up with the top three, three of Dan’s friends, it was a tough one.”

Franchitti won a wheel-to-wheel, last-lap battle, sailing away to the checkered flag when Takuma Sato spun out trying to make one last pass on the inside and slammed into the wall.

The race had shaped into what was expected to be a duel to the finish between Franchitti and Dixon. But when the Scot made his final pass of Dixon with two laps to go, he pulled Sato with him and it sapped Dixon’s momentum.

So the last-lap pass attempt was Sato’s for the taking, and he couldn’t pull it off as he hugged the inside white line through Turn 1. His wheels appeared to touch Franchitti’s, he spun hard into the wall, and Franchitti sailed past for the win under caution – just as in his previous victories in 2007 and 2010.

Dixon crossed in second place, and Kanaan was third.

“Everybody up there was a friend of Dan’s, and that about sums it up. Everybody loved him,” Franchitti said as bagpipes played over the public address system.

“What a race! What a race!” said Franchitti, who became the 10th driver to win at least three Indy 500s. “I think D-Dub would be proud of that one.”

Dixon met his teammate in Victory Lane, and Franchitti was reminded of the delicate balance in celebrating a team win vs. beating a teammate.

“I want to beat Scott. I know he wants to beat me. I don’t think I’ve met maybe a more competitive individual, except maybe Dan in the early years,” Franchitti said. “He’s my buddy. Out on the track, he’s competition, but a teammate, and then afterward he’s my friend. I see the disappointment in his face. I see the disappointment in (Kanaan’s) face.”

Kanaan, who used a bold move on a late restart to dart from fifth to first, couldn’t hold off Franchitti and Dixon on the last restart. He was OK with the final result.

“I don’t think it could have been a better result for Dan,” Kanaan said. “Wherever he is right now, he’s definitely making fun of Sato, I can tell you that, and he’s giving Dario a tap on the back for sure, and he was going to call me a wanker that I didn’t win this thing.

“I’m glad this is over. I’m glad that now I hope we can all move on and just remember Dan the way Dan was – a happy guy, a wonderful friend.”

Wheldon’s widow, Susie, went to Victory Lane to congratulate Franchitti, who hid his tears behind white sunglasses worn in tribute because they were Wheldon’s preference. She then sat next to Franchitti’s wife, actress Ashley Judd, in the backseat of the convertible – the same seat she had a year ago for Wheldon’s win – for the victory lap around the 2.5-mile oval.

The day opened with car owner Bryan Herta driving a single parade lap around the track in the car Wheldon drove to victory last year. Fans were given white sunglasses to wear on laps 26 and 98, marking the car numbers Wheldon used in his two wins.

It was Susie Wheldon’s first trip to any racetrack since her husband’s death, and she watched from Dixon’s pit stand with his wife, Emma.

So it was apt on this hot day – the temperature hit 91 degrees, just one shy of the Indy 500 record from 1937 – that one of the most competitive races in history ended with a frantic push by Wheldon’s friends. Ten drivers swapped the lead 35 times, shattering the record of 29 in the 1960 race.

Until the last lap, when Sato made his move for the win, the race was close but uneventful.

The only multi-car accident came when a spin by Mike Conway collected Will Power, who came to Indy as the series points leader and winner of the last three races this season.

It was a somewhat frightening accident as Conway, who broke his front wing when he hit one of his crew members on pit road, hit the outside wall and his car tilted on its side before coming to rest. And Helio Castroneves had to deftly maneuver past a bouncing tire that still grazed one of his own wheels.

Besides that, though, the race was slowed by only seven other cautions – including the one on the last lap – for 39 of the 200 laps.

Marco Andretti, who went into Sunday believing the race “is mine to lose,” was strong at the start, but a series of adjustments were not to his liking and he unraveled on his team radio before spinning to bring out the final caution with 13 laps remaining.

Franchitti and Dixon battled back and forth in the final third of the race, with Sato consistently in the mix. Then came Kanaan, from nowhere it seemed, but he was unable to hang on to the lead on the restart after Andretti’s crash brought out the yellow.

Andretti said the wreck “definitely rang my bell.”

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