Dario Franchitti, who won the Indy Racing League championship two years ago and then went stock car racing in NASCAR, returned to the open-wheel wars this season and won the title again Saturday in Florida by capturing the Firestone Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It was the second-fastest race in series history – the average speed was a sliver over 200 miles an hour – and it was the first to go the distance without a yellow flag. That’s the good news.
Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske finished second in the race and Franchitti's teammate at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Scott Dixon, was third. That’s also good news, but the bad news is that they were the only other two drivers on the lead lap.
That’s correct. Of 23 cars in this race, only three were on the lead lap and the other 20 were a lap or laps behind. For instance, Tony Kanaan finished fourth and Helio Castroneves was fifth and they were a lap behind. Hideki Mutoh was sixth and he was two laps down. It gets worse. The tenth-place car, Justin Wilson, was three laps behind. ("Yes, I had a Top Ten finish. But I was actually four-and-half miles behind the guy who won . . . )
Having said that, the top three guys were worth the price of admission. Dixon took it to Franchitti (who started on pole) for the first 10 laps or so. Side-by-side they ran, lap after lap. At 200-plus mph, it was a test of skill and courage. And Briscoe was right on their tails, waiting for one or the other to bobble. Franchitti blinked first and eventually settled into third and waited for the race to play out.
As it became apparent that the race might go caution-free, fuel strategy became key. Franchitti managed to stretch his just a tad further than the others – Briscoe and Dixon stopped for fuel on lap 144 of the 200-lap race while Franchitti stayed out till lap 150. With the checkers literally in sight, both Briscoe and Dixon then had to duck into the pits for a splash while Franchitti sailed through to the end.
Franchitti’s championship margin turned out to be 11 points – 616 to 605 for Dixon, who edged Briscoe (604) by one point. Castroneves was fourth in the championship with 433 points while Danica Patrick finished fifth with 393.
– Speaking of Patrick, she ran as high as third but was fifth-sixth most of the race until she made her final pit stop. Turning into her pit, she was hit by Dan Wheldon, who was exiting his. That one of his crewmen gave him the green light to go just as she was arriving is appalling. The Andretti-Green team managed to get her car repaired and she returned to the action but officially finished 19th.
Now, as ABC (which telecasts five or six Indy car races a year) goes overboard in its coverage of Danica (just as the golf broadcasts are constantly talking about Tiger), it almost seems as if the U.S. sports network Versus (which televises the rest of the IRL schedule) goes to extremes not to talk about her.
Which is totally ridiculous. As mentioned, she was in the top five all day but you wouldn’t have known it and that’s just another reason the IRL is in trouble. She is, like it or not, their only superstar (which is why NASCAR is rolling out the red carpet the way they are). Without her, IndyCar is very close to being nothing. I’ve suggested this test before, and I’ll do it again. Walk out on any street anywhere and ask the first 10 people you meet if they recognize the name Scott Dixon. Or Ryan Briscoe. You will get nothing but blank stares. They will, however, recognize Danica Patrick and possibly Helio Castroneves (Dancing with the Stars, you know) and maybe - maybe - Dario. So they ignore Danica at their peril.
– The announcers kept mentioning how wonderful it is that Sarah Fisher is going to run more than three or four races next year. She might make it onto the grid for six or seven, in fact.
Why? She finished 13 laps behind in this last race, which is a pretty good indication of how uncompetitive she is. Poor Milka Duno, whose name was not mentioned once yesterday and who is the butt of as many jokes as Sarah Palin, was a paltry six laps behind, by comparison.
– They have been promoting this particular race in South Florida for months. Most of the drivers live there. There is a strong Latin contingent in the IRL – Tony Kanaan, Castroneves, Mario Moraes, Raphael Matos, E.J. Viso and Duno and there is a huge Latino presence in the Miami area. So how come there was nobody there?
Oh, I know. The TV pics showed a "full" grandstand. Uh-uh. The crowd (if you want to call it that) was confined to less than half of the main grandstand (from the fourth turn till just past the start/finish line). When the TV cameras panned in from a 45-degree angle, the place looked packed. But when the shot was from head-on, there were huge numbers of unoccupied seats.
This series has got big problems. They need help – and here are some suggestions.
– Another sign of trouble in River City. I have a friend very close to that scene. He tells me that the employees of one Indy car organization that also ran Indy Lights cars this season were all sending out their resumes this past week and making phone calls looking for work.
Hold onto your hats. This ride’s gonna be rough.