HPD Blog

Monday, June 14, 2010

Paddock Report – Indy 500

-Dan Layton

It isn’t always the case (see Kanaan, Tony, in 2004, ’06, ’07, etc) but this year, at least, the fastest car and bravest driver won the Indianapolis 500.

For, just as teammate Scott Dixon had done at Kansas to start the month of May, Dario Franchitti gave the Indy field an old-fashioned whuppin’ to win his second “500”. Yeah, he got a break at the end with the yellow for the Conway/Hunter-Reay crash, but the #10 Target car was the fastest thing on the track all day long, running in ultra-trimmed out form, and Dario was willing, and more than able, to hang on for the ride.

Prior to Race Day, however, the smart money was on Team Penske. And, more specifically, Helio Castroneves. Helio l-o-o-o-o-o-oves the Speedway, and the grand ol’ dame appears to frequently return the favor. But not this year.

Helio dominated Pole Day, throwing down a four-lap run in the new “Fast Nine” shootout that visibly deflated his competition – just as he had intended. Teammates Ryan Briscoe and Will Power weren’t far behind. The race appeared to be Penske’s to lose.

And lose it they did.

It all started with the weather. After a cool – and sometimes wet – week of practice, conditions warmed up for qualifying. Penske adjusted accordingly, claimed the first two qualifying spots and came within a gnat’s eyelash of locking up the full front row.

But on race day, it went clear past warm into HOT territory: 95 or so degrees ambient, and more than 130 degrees on the asphalt. To compensate for the hotter (and greasier) conditions, all three Penske cars cranked in a bit more downforce on Race Day – as did Ganassi on Dixon’s car.

But the Franchitti side of the Ganassi garage elected to run trimmed-out. In the early laps, Dario had to hang on to a sliding car. But it also was a fast car, and as the track continued to “rubber in” during the first half of the race, the #10 car just got quicker and quicker.

Now, the trick for Chip Ganassi, [engineer] Chris Simmons & Co. in Dario’s pit was to make the right pit calls. With a low-downforce setup, Dario did NOT want to get stuck behind a lot of traffic. He needed to stay out front as much as possible, and the Pit Lane strategy team did that for him.

Ultimately, whatever chances the Penske trio and Dixon may have had disappeared in the pits, with a stall (Castroneves), lost wheel (Dixon, conveniently delivered to Franchitti’s pit box), departure with the fuel hose attached (Power), and crash on the ‘out’ lap (Briscoe).

Game. Set. Match. Thus, Dario became the 17th two-time Indy champion and Chip Ganassi became the first team owner to win the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 in the same season. Yep, not even The Captain (Roger Penske) has accomplished that feat.

Dario dominated, but hands-down the MVP – and crowd favorite of the day – was Tony Kanaan. Starting DFL in the field – having had a qualifying-weekend-from-hell and switched from his qualified backup car to a repaired primary – TK elicited cheer after cheer from the crowd as he rapidly scythed through the back half of the field in the opening laps – passing eight cars alone (if I counted correctly) on just his opening lap.

Near the end of the race, Kanaan was the last real remaining threat to Franchitti’s dominance, but he likely used too much fuel in chasing down the leader, and was forced to pit on Lap 196 to end his challenge.

That left Dario almost four seconds ahead of Dan Wheldon, with the Panther driver en-route to a second consecutive runner-up finish at the Speedway. Dan appeared to be closing significantly on Franchitti in the final laps, but in this case appearances only served to deceive, as both cars were, in reality, very low on fuel, and Dario was driving just fast enough to ensure a margin over the ’05 race winner.

Alex Lloyd and the Dale Coyne crew did a wonderful job to finish fourth – the team’s best result at Indy. Replacing the departed (and much-missed earlier in the season) Bill Pappas with Mitch Davis as a combined engineer/team manager has once again turned DCR into a potential Mighty Mouse effort. It paid off on Race Day.

And props to Andretti Autosport. For all their struggles with all five entries in qualifying, they moved all of their cars forward in the race. At various times, all but John Andretti [out relatively early after a suspension failure following contact] ran in the lead pack.

Potential giant-killer FAZZT Racing was a bit of a fizzle on race day, another team caught out by the hot temps, Alex Tagliani struggled at the start of each stint, while Indy-only teammate Bruno Junqueira lost it exiting Turn Two early and was the second car out of the race.

In the aftermath of the race and certain “commercial” issues that arose, team co-owner Jim Freudenberg departed, with veteran Team Manager Rob Edwards taking on commercial duties as well. There’s a lot of potential on this team, so a lot of us hope they find the sponsorship needed to join the big boys.

Finally, there was the BIG CRASH on Lap 199 that ended the race under caution. Mike Conway was actually pretty lucky to get out of that one with “just” a fractured back and compound fracture of his left leg. It could have been much, much worse, and he’s already out of the hospital and recovering at home. He’ll be on the sidelines for most, if not all, of the rest of this season and late word has Graham Rahal taking over the #24 car from Iowa onward.

It wasn’t a classic Indy 500, but it was an interesting one, and Dario was a most deserving winner.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, it was on to Texas. No rest for the wicked….

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