INDIANAPOLIS -- Before the start of Sunday's 96th Indianapolis 500, Dario Franchitti stood under an umbrella held by his wife -- actress Ashley Judd -- to shield himself from the scorching sun. He then leaned against the left-front tire to steal a moment of solitude amid a crowd of 350,000 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Judd's last words to her husband were, "I'll see you in Victory Lane."
Franchitti kept his date with his wife, driving into the history books with his third career Indianapolis 500 victory. He is just the seventh driver to complete that feat, and he did so in one of the most competitive Indy 500s in history.
There were 17 cars on the lead lap with a record 35 lead changes between 10 different drivers. The race was contested in 91-degree heat, which fell one degree shy of the all-time record (92 degrees) set in 1937.
As the laps dwindled, it appeared to be a two-man race between Franchitti and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon. The two traded the lead several times over the final six laps before Japan's Takuma Sato passed Dixon for second place. Sato went for the lead on the final lap, attempting to dive beneath Franchitti during the first turn, but his move didn't work. He lost control on the apron and crashed into the outside wall in Turn 1.
"I was going for the win, of course," said Sato, who was attempting to become the first driver from Japan to win the Indy 500. "I don't think Dario gave me enough room so I'm really disappointed. It was the very last lap and I drove in, but he didn't move up. I had nowhere to go, so I'm a little disappointed."
Franchitti crossed the finish line with the yellow and checkered flags waving. His two closet friends in the series, Dixon and Tony Kanaan, finished second and third respectively.
But Franchitti's thoughts were with another friend -- the late Dan Wheldon who was killed in the horrific crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16, 2011. Wheldon won last year's Indianapolis 500, and the series honored him before the start of Sunday's race.
"What a race, what a race," Franchitti said while standing in Victory Lane. "I think D-dub [Dan Wheldon] would be proud of that one.
"I just want to dedicate this to two of Indianapolis' finest, Dan Wheldon and Michael Wanser [son of Barry Wanser of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing]. Thanks to all of the Indianapolis fans for their tribute to Dan today."
Franchitti confided to SI.com on Friday that he wanted to win this year's Indianapolis 500 so that his face would bookend Wheldon's face on the BorgWarner Trophy. Franchitti was the 2010 Indy 500 winner; Wheldon won last year.
"To be on either side of Dan -- that means more to me than anything," Franchitti said.
Franchitti's victory was the first of the season for the Dallara/Honda combination. Dixon finished second in another Dallara/Honda followed by Kanaan's Dallara/Chevrolet. Oriol Servia of Spain was fourth in a Dallara/Chevrolet, ahead of pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe, who drove a Dallara/Chevrolet for Team Penske.
James Hinchcliffe of Canada finished sixth for Andretti Autosport in a Dallara/Chevrolet, followed by England's Justin Wilson in a Dallara/Honda. Charlie Kimball (eighth) was the highest-finishing driver from the U.S.
Townsend Bell of California was ninth with three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil rounding out the top 10. Former Formula 1 driver Rubens Barrichello of Brazil finished 11th in his first-ever oval race.
Marco Andretti led the most laps in the race when he was in front three times for 59 laps but crashed on the 187th lap and finished 24th.
There were eight caution periods in the race but the average speed was a blistering 167.734 miles per hour.
With so much fearless racing being waged over the final laps, nobody knew for sure who would get to the checkered flag first. Sato forced the issue, Franchitti held his ground, and the race was decided when Sato's aggressive move for first failed.
"I moved over, and I saw he was coming," Franchitti said of Sato. "I came back over and I moved up the track. He got loose underneath me. It kind of reminds me of Emerson Fittipaldi and Little Al [Unser] at the end there [in 1989]. This means the world. This is Indianapolis."
Franchitti's victory was impressive because he battled back from last on the track after he was hit from behind by E.J. Viso when he made a pit stop on Lap 15. Franchitti's car suffered a front nose and front wing damage but his crew was able to make the repair and get Franchitti back on the track in a car that could win the race.
"Whether I get spun in the pits, we didn't get back up, that's what it was going to give me today," Franchitti said. "The key was timing my passes. A good car, but I was able to time the passes coming up. One of the reasons I love driving for the Target team, it's the same thing the Andretti guys have, there's no giving up. It's like, Okay, great, here we go. This is the situation we find ourselves in. How are we going to get out of it?
"We did today. To finish 1-2 with Scott, have T.K. third, that was a cool result."
Dixon's second-place finish gave team owner Chip Ganassi his fifth Indianapolis 500 victory, tying Lou Moore for second on the list of career wins by car owners. Roger Penske leads all car owners with 15 victories.
It was the second time Franchitti and Dixon finished 1-2, respectively, in the Indianapolis 500. The other year was 2007, when Franchitti won for Andretti Green Racing and Dixon was second for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
"The thing with Dario, he's always there," Dixon said. "Earlier in the day, a lot of guys wouldn't come back from that, mentally be strong enough to get back from that.
"I think everybody, whoever comes here, it's the marquee event, the big event, you're going to do anything to put your face on the Borg-Warner. I think a lot of us that were close to Dan, you know, you wanted it that little bit more. 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. But, you know, it was a great race. But I think tragedy aside, we would come here the same way, same mindset. It just added a lot to it. I think it would probably feel a little bit more special having won right after Dan."
Both Franchitti's wife and Susie Wheldon accompanied Franchitti as he took his traditional winner's lap around the track in the pace car.
"Suze came over to say, `Well done,'" Franchitti said. "We got to have a wee chat. I tell you what, she's a stronger person than I am to come here. She knows better than anybody how much Dan loved Indy and how much Indy loved Dan. But to be here, go through all those emotions...
"When we saw her, it would be cool for Suze to come. Last year, my favorite memory of the race last year was Dan was going out of the on his parade lap afterwards. I had this crazy notion in my head I was going to carjack him. I'm standing in pit lane, I'm disappointed, but at the same time I'm happy for my friend. I see him coming towards me. This is going to be good. I see his face. He was just sobbing. It meant so much to him. Everything that had happened to him with not having a regular drive, all the stuff with his mum, Alzheimer's. I couldn't do it. I just gave him a big hug and told him how proud I was of him.
"It meant a lot that Suze was able to come around with us today."
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been called the "World's Largest Theater of Human Emotion" and Sunday's Indianapolis 500 more than lived up to its billing.