INDIANAPOLIS -- When it comes to thrills and excitement, nothing beats the Indianapolis 500. And the 96th running on Sunday was no exception. In fact, it could certainly lay claim as one of the greatest Indy 500s in history. The outcome was in doubt until the very last lap when Japan's Takuma Sato attempted to dive under race-leader Dario Franchitti in the first turn of the last lap. Sato lost control of his car after it made contact with Franchitti and he crashed into the wall, giving Franchitti the victory under a yellow flag.
It was a historic day for Franchitti, who became the 10th driver with at least three wins in the Indianapolis 500. At 39, Franchitti could even join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears in the four-time winners club.
The list of drivers with three Indy 500 wins in their career includes Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Helio Castroneves and Franchitti.
It was also an emotional day as those gathered honored the late Dan Wheldon before the race. Last year's Indy 500 winner was killed in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16. It was fitting then that Wheldon's three closest friends in racing finished 1-2-3 in the Indianapolis 500. When Wheldon's widow, Susie, congratulated Franchitti in Victory Lane, he invited her to join his wife, actress Ashley Judd, in the Chevrolet Corvette pace car for the traditional winner's lap around the 2.5-mile oval.
It was quite a day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and an Indianapolis 500 for the ages. So let's get right to the five things we learned at the 96th Indianapolis 500.
It didn't take long for Franchitti to become a serious title contender. He entered the sport in 1997, and two years later, he was competing for the title. But it would take some time for Franchitti to evolve from contender to champion.
In 2007 he won his first Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series title for what was then Team Green. He briefly left IndyCar to compete in NASCAR, but in 2009, he returned to the series to drive the No. 10 car for owner Chip Ganassi.
Since that time, Franchitti has won three more IndyCar Series titles and two more Indy 500s.
"He's been through a lot of the changes in the sport, different cars, different tires, different engines, different series, different this, different that," Ganassi said. "He's the kind of guy you'd like to have because he's sort of been there, done that.
"[We] were last after the first pit stop, [and] there was never one word about that. It wasn't like, 'Oh, man.' Nobody on the team said anything. Came in, changed the front wing. He went out. He said, All right. Before you know it, he was 23rd, next thing he was 16th, next thing he was 10th.
"That's the kind of guy you want in your car."
Franchitti knows he wouldn't have been in position to hit Victory Lane without his team.
"It's a team sport," Franchitti said. "I'm very aware of the fact that the team wins it, myself and all the other members of the team. That includes Honda. We all win it together. I couldn't just jump in any car here. This group of people I get to work with, I know how lucky I am, and I don't take it for granted."
Mike Hull, the managing director of Target/Chip Ganassi, assessed what makes Franchitti a master of the moment.
"In Dario's case, we have a guy ... that drives with the experience of his age, but he comes to work every day with the enthusiasm and the intent of an 18-year-old," Hull said. "That's a pretty tough combination to beat. Then what he does, he's absolutely unselfish. In motor racing around the world with two-driver teams, how many teams can say that? I don't think there's one, except this team. Of course, I have a biased opinion.
"The two drivers [Franchitti and teammate Scott Dixon] that we have that work together as one got us to the front today. That's made a big difference over time."
From Lap 153 to 199, Franchitti and Dixon swapped the lead 12 times. But in the end, it was Franchitti who hit Victory Lane.
It was a truly historic achievement, but Franchitti refuses to discuss his own greatness.
"Maybe when I retire," Franchitti said. "I'm very proud -- and I've said this before -- of the achievements, whether its Indy wins, championships, every one of the race wins. Sometimes I look back, but generally I'm trying to look forward. When I retire, that's the time to look back and hang out with my friends here, hang over the fence, shout abuse at Dixie, Will, Tony, all the guys that are still racing.
Franchitti won't say it but I will -- he truly is one of the greatest drivers in Indianapolis 500 history. The question is, who will become the next four-time Indy 500 winner: Franchitti or Helio Castroneves.
My pick is Franchitti and don't be surprised if he accomplishes that in the next few years.
There is a reason why the Indianapolis 500 stands above all other races. It combines history, speed, danger, risk and reward in enormous quantities. From the massive grandstands that make this the largest sports stadium in the world to the colorful fans that number well over 350,000 every year, it is an event that rarely disappoints.
And Sunday's race was one of the best -- if not the best -- in the 101-year history of this grand event.
Entering Sunday's race, the record for lead changes was 29 in 1960. Sunday's race shattered that number with 34 lead changes among 10 drivers.
On the final lap of Sunday's Indy 500, Sato risked all in an attempt to win the race. It was similar to the 1989 race when Fittipaldi and Unser went side-by-side into the third turn realizing only one car would come out. In that race, Fittipaldi survived as the two cars touched and Unser hit the third turn wall.
After that incident, Unser walked to the apron of the track, and when Fittipaldi came around on the final lap, Unser clapped and gave the driver from Brazil the thumbs up.
Sato, however, wasn't handing out congratulations after Sunday's race.
"I was going for the win," said Sato, a former Formula 1 driver from Japan. "On the last restart we jumped from seventh to fifth then [took] fourth, third, second. I kept pushing and overtaking. On the very last lap, I had a good tow from Dario. I thought I had the job done. But he kept pushing me and didn't give me any room, so that I was well below the white line."
Franchitti didn't quite see it the same way.
"He's very aggressive. I think he thought that was his chance. I mean, why not? I think he did everything right up until he lost the rear-end of the car. ... That was the problem. I guess the car was too oversteery. He lost the rear. He made a good move. I wasn't very happy about it. But, yeah, I didn't touch him. I didn't squeeze him down. He just lost the rear of the car."
When asked if Sato's move was brave, rash or downright foolish, Franchitti defended the driver for going for the victory.
"It was none of those," Franchitti said. "It's the last lap of the Indianapolis 500. I wouldn't expect him to lift at that point. He was sort of getting alongside. ... I think his front wheels and my rear wheels were alongside. He put me in a position that I had to go wide. The only mistake was when the car got loose. Maybe that's experience. Maybe the car was just bloody oversteering. I don't know. But that was it."
There's a reason why drivers such as Sato on Sunday and Al Unser, Jr. back in 1989 would weigh the risk such a daring move: It's the Indianapolis 500 and a win in this race gives any driver immortality.
The big question heading into the Indy 500 was how the Dallara DW12 chassis would perform in its first oval race. Drivers predicted an extremely competitive Indy 500 but the show that was put on Sunday exceeded those expectations. The chassis a created tremendous passing opportunities with breathtaking restarts as cars often went three- and even four-wide down the frontstretch. While some of those situations were too close for comfort, it was for the most part a clean race except for one big crash involving Mike Conway and Will Power, where Conway's car went airborne and sideways on top of the wall before finally landing on its wheels. The safety of the car appeared to work as none of the drivers involved in the incidents were injured.
Most of the drivers up front realized the leader of the race was a sitting duck -- that the second-place car could draft its way to the lead and it developed into a chess game of who wanted to be in front and at what time.
But at the end Franchitti was in the right place at the end -- Victory Lane.
Tony Kanaan's favorite animal is a gorilla and he pulled off a restart of King Kong proportions when he drove from seventh to first on Lap 185. The move was so spectacular it brought many of the 350,000 fans in the grandstands to their feet.
"It was a good one but I would [say] my start in 2010 better than that," Kanaan said. "There were 12 cars, two corners, I was dead last. I had more fun on that one."
Some of his competitors believe that Kanaan actually jumped the restart but did not get penalized.
"Well, that restart I think it was jumped by quite a bit," said second-place finisher Scott Dixon. "We were like sitting ducks, man. We were 1-2. I think by the time we got to the start/finish line, we were seventh. That was definitely unexpected. It hadn't been like that all day. I think they timed it perfectly. I'm pretty sure T.K. was in fourth gear by the time we were trying to get out of second gear. They came by quickly. It definitely woke us up. We had to get back after it. With the new car, when you're out front, you're definitely a sitting duck. We were a couple of sitting ducks that time and I got passed by quite a few."
The last time a driver named Andretti won the Indianapolis 500 was in 1969 when Mario won for the only time. Mario would have a long career but never again drive to victory in the Indy 500. His son, Michael, holds the record for most laps led by a non-winner. His grandson, Marco, came within 100 yards of winning the race in 2006 but was passed by Sam Hornish Jr. with the checkered flag in sight.
For much of Sunday's race, it appeared Marco would finally end the Andretti Curse. He was in front for a race-high 59 laps, but on lap 188 Marco crashed in the first turn.
Instead of driving to Victory Lane he finished 24th.
"[Oriol] Servia decided to run two-wide at Indianapolis for two consecutive laps and makes me turn in from the white line," Andretti said. "I had no hope of making that corner because not only am I turning in from the white line, he just crossed my bow, so I was completely out of it."