Bruce Martin
Monday May 11th, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS -- In any other year, a comeback like the one Dario Franchitti has made this month would be the big story leading into the Indianapolis 500.

But, of course, this isn't any other year, and Franchitti's return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been overshadowed by Helio Castroneves' remarkable comeback, as the two-time Indy 500 winner has gone from an accused tax cheat to the pole winner for the 93rd running of the world's biggest race.

Castroneves was acquitted on April 17, and returned to his IndyCar the following day. He hasn't missed a beat. He claimed his third Indy 500 pole on Saturday with a four-lap average of 224.864 miles per hour.

But on the outside of the front row is Franchitti, who started in that same position in 2007, when he went on to win both the Indy 500 and the IndyCar Series championship.

Take away Castroneves, and Franchitti would be the Comeback Kid for sure.

When the 2007 season ended, the driver from Edinburgh, Scotland, wanted a new challenge in racing, so he left the high-speed winged machines for the bulkier, slower ones in the more popular and potentially more lucrative world of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. If Franchitti was looking for a challenge, he certainly got it in NASCAR. He adapted in some ways, but struggled to make the top 20 in any of his races before discovering that NASCAR isn't always as safe as it appears on television.

Two weeks after breaking his ankle in a crash at Talladega, the hobbling Franchitti returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- with a cast on his left foot -- to see his old IndyCar pals. "It seems really strange to be here and not be driving," Franchitti said last year. "This is always a very special place."

His stance then was that his switch to NASCAR was "the right move at the right time." He also said he had "no remorse whatsoever" for leaving IndyCar because he was ready for a new challenge.

But Franchitti wasn't being totally honest. He admitted later last year that his trip to Indy made him realize how much he missed IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500. It's something that lingered in the back of his mind. And when team owner Chip Ganassi parked Franchitti's stock car midway through the season because of sponsorship issues, the driver officially went from Indy 500 winner to part-time Nationwide Series competitor.

He got back into IndyCar when Target/Chip Ganassi Racing's relationship with driver Dan Wheldon was dissolving, allowing Franchitti to take over the No. 10 car and join Scott Dixon on the two-car team.

"The thought started forming at this time last year," Franchitti admitted. "In July, Chip started quizzing me about returning to IndyCars, and Chip generally doesn't ask the question unless he has some interest in the answer."

The move has worked out well so far. Franchitti won the April 19 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, and Dixon followed one week later with a victory at Kansas Speedway. Not bad considering he was just a spectator last year.

"I was definitely a spectator because I was trying to get the swelling to go down on my broken ankle," Franchitti said. "This just feels like it fits, though. I love driving the car. I forgot how much I love driving IndyCars. I've had a pretty good start to the season on the street courses. The first lap back here put a big smile on my face. This is as challenging a place as I've ever driven, but I'm loving it. The feeling of driving a fast lap here, you can't help but be energized by it."

Speaking of second chances, Franchitti couldn't help but comment on Mark Martin, who won Saturday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway for his second victory in the last four races.

"He's a very, very talented guy. I've learned a lot from him, both sitting and talking to him and following him on the track. He's one of the cool guys. I'm not surprised at all he's having the success, not only winning races but pole positions, too. He's on it, man."

And so is Franchitti, who is making the most out of his second opportunity in IndyCar.

It wasn't exactly Danny Sullivan's "Spin and Win" from the 1985 Indianapolis 500, but 20-year-old Graham Rahal's slide to avoid impaling John Andretti in a crash Sunday may have been a life-saver.

Rahal, who was safely in the 33-car starting lineup, was on the race track late in the day preparing his car's race-day setup. As Rahal was speeding down the frontstretch, Andretti crashed hard into the first turn wall at 4:43 p.m. The impact was so hard, Andretti's car virtually exploded, sending debris scattering across the track.

Rahal came around the first turn and saw Andretti's car still sliding across the track for the outside wall. If Rahal were heavy on the brakes, he would have crashed his car into the wall. If he went high, he would have T-boned Andretti's car, which would have had disastrous consequences. So Rahal threw his car into a spin, sliding through the debris and across the grass without hitting the outside wall, the inside wall or Andretti's mangled car.

The move was so impressive; his Newman Haas Lanigan crew watched the replay on one of the big screens at the Speedway. They all applauded after watching Rahal keep the car off the wall and out of Andretti's car.

"I saw all the debris was going low and I went to the outside and then all of a sudden he starts rolling back into my path and I was going to hit him," Rahal recalled. "I turned hard left and hit the brakes and it locked left. I was lucky I was able to get it slowed down enough to keep it off the Turn 2 wall and hit something else. Missing the inside wall was just luck. I took my hands off the wheel and thought I would hit the inside wall. I was just hoping I didn't hit the second turn wall. Honestly, we were lucky. We need this car to go racing in two weeks."

Young Rahal is the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal. His racing ability may be genetic but he is also a student of the sport.

"If he had T-boned John Andretti, it would not have been pretty," said Newman Haas Lanigan crew chief Mitch Davis. "We are already in the race, but it would have been sad to have lost the car. We are fortunate -- very fortunate."

Andretti tore up his race car and was bumped out of the field when his four-lap average of 221.109 mph was too slow.

"You hate to get other people caught up in your own crash," he said. "I saw him spinning around out there after I hit. We were struggling with the balance of the car, and that time it just got away from me."

When Scott Sharp squeaked into the starting lineup for the Indy 500 with one minute left in second-round qualifications, he saved the team $130,000.

Sharp's car at Panther Racing has a one-week engine lease from Honda Performance Development that costs $95,000. That allows the team to use the engine for one of the two weeks of practice and qualifications, for Carb Day on May 22 and on Race Day on May 24.

Other teams that used the engine lease for the first week were Alex Tagliani at Conquest Racing, A.J. Foyt, IV at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Paul Tracy at KV Racing Technologies. Of those drivers, only Tagliani did not qualify into the starting lineup, which means his team will have to find $130,000 to get into the race on the second weekend of time trials, because a full-month engine lease costs $225,000.

Drivers who will use the one-week engine lease for the second week of practice and qualifications include Townsend Bell at KV Racing, Oriol Servia at Rahal Letterman Racing and Buddy Lazier at Hemelgarn Racing.

Sharp, who qualified for his 14th Indy 500, is a full-time competitor in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and will be in Utah next weekend to compete at Miller Motorsports Park.

It also saved Sharp a lot of money from having to fly back and forth from Utah to Indianapolis to fulfill his commitments to both the Indy 500 and ALMS.

Jenson Button's rise to prominence in Formula One continued with his latest victory in Sunday's Grand Prix of Spain. But the Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Toyota F1 team overshadowed that victory by threatening to quit the sport over proposed budget cap rules for 2010.

Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz voiced his concerns to an Austrian daily newspaper, saying he planned to boycott the planned rule changes. Toyota voiced its disapproval on Saturday.

Mateschitz told the Salzburger Nachrichten: "If the proposed rules for 2010 remain unchanged, we will not enter next year's championship -- and I guess that won't do for the works teams either. So, possibly, only two, or maybe three, of the existing teams will enter the championship. The conditions for 2010 at the moment make it impossible to sign in. But I hope there will be a meeting and a settlement before the entry deadline."

Any teams wishing to participate in next year's World Championship have until May 29 to agree with the new cost-capping regulations that have aroused so many heated reactions.

The FIA has proposed a voluntary £40 million budget cap for the teams -- a figure that excludes drivers' salaries, engines, fines, penalties and marketing and hospitality.

The teams that comply with the cap will be allowed much greater technical freedom and unlimited out-of-season testing. Testing in the season is currently banned.

A meeting between FIA president Max Mosley and the Formula One Teams' Association is expected to take place before next week's Monaco Grand Prix.

Just what Formula One needs -- more politics. It's the only sport in the world in which fans follow the sport's politics more than the actual competition. It's a giant headache.

At 50, Mark Martin is the old man of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. I guess it's fitting that he won a race known as the "Granddaddy of Them All" -- the Southern 500.

In winning -- again -- Martin has suddenly become a hero to many of his fellow competitors. "My hat is off to Mark Martin and that whole No. 5 team," Jimmie Johnson said after finishing second to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. "We're running as hard as we could and just kind of matching pace. We had to go into fuel conservation mode after that, but 50 years old and he drives his butt off. I'm proud of him."

This was the first Southern 500 since 2004. One of Darlington's race dates was moved to California Speedway, giving that track two dates, and leaving Darlington with just one May date.

Darlington Raceway officials decided to bring back the Southern 500 name for this year's race in an attempt to reconnect with the historic event that was held on Labor Day Weekend at the South's first superspeedway beginning in 1950.

Now, Martin's name is on the same list as the sport's all-time greats.

"What an incredible privilege it was to spend time with the past winners," Martin said. "David Pearson told me I was going to go out here and win this thing. David Pearson is the coolest dude ever. Cale Yarborough, so many of those guys... I really do appreciate bringing that flavor back into our sport. We need to remember our heroes, and that's really special.

"I'm overwhelmed, just totally overwhelmed. This is a little bit more special in some ways than Phoenix because I was just kind of spun out, I just couldn't hardly believe it at Phoenix. There was so much going on. It's soaking in a little bit better."

"We came to qualifying for 10 or 12 years because we didn't have time to come for the race. [Two years ago] I got to come for the race. When I came on Race Day it was the first time I had ever been to the Indianapolis 500. I've been to the Super Bowl and the World Series and I finally got to come to the biggest race there is." -- Richard Petty, "The King" of NASCAR who won seven NASCAR Cup championships and seven Daytona 500s, on the thrill of attending the Indianapolis 500 in 2007.

"Are you kidding, man? It's just incredible. This place is magic." -- Helio Castroneves on winning his third Indy 500 pole on Saturday.

"Nobody is going to buy that picture the way the car looks now. The other option would be to get the car we did not run and take the picture, but that car is dumped, I don't want to see it. I divorced that one. I put a couple marks on it so that I can tell in case they try to fool me." -- Tony Kanaan, talking about the primary car that he dumped in Indy 500 practice because it was too slow. Kanaan made it into the field by driving a car that included teammate Hideki Mutoh's tub with front and rear wings from Kanaan's car, creating a color combination that looked hideous.

"I like the format because it's good for the fans. it puts a lot of strain on the team and on the drivers. Some people think putting the drivers on multiple qualifying runs with how hung out you are in these cars, which are tricky to drive and the aero configuration is bottomless, that's the fine line. You start dancing with the devil in these things once you take the angle of the wing off." -- IndyCar driver Paul Tracy on the challenges of four-lap qualifications for the Indianapolis 500.

"Man, that was like a 1000-mile race for us." -- Jimmie Johnson after the Southern 500.

Back in the day, "Bump Day" at the Indianapolis 500 was more fun than Pole Day. Bump Day was a chance for the back-markers to shine as last-minute rides, as driver deals were slapped together in the final minutes of qualifications. It was nearly a "fist-fight on pit road" just to get into the 33-car starting lineup for the Indy 500.

When there were 45-50 car/driver combinations fighting for 33 spots, it was fascinating to see drivers who had never been in the race car strap in and push the car beyond its limits just to make the race. It was bravery on display because some of those efforts resulted in crashes against the wall and trips to Methodist Hospital. With the economy affecting this sport, Bump Day isn't as frantic as it used to be, but it is still a day to expect the unexpected at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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