The 96th Indianapolis 500 turned out - as many expected - to be one of the most competitive races ever staged on the 2.5-mile historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.
With 35 lead changes among 10 drivers it looked like anyone's race, but as everyone who's ever raced at Indianapolis knows, this race has its own heartbeat, its own way of rewarding and punishing teams, drivers and prognosticators alike.
It was supposed to be a Chevrolet party, wasn't it?
After all, Chevy won the first four events with Team Penske, who have 15 Indy 500 victories at the Brickyard. Chevy won the first five pole positions and gave Team Penske its 17th pole among 11 drivers at Indy. Chevrolet had eight of the top nine spots on the grid. It was looking like the department of redundancy was about to take over.
But Honda said they'd made gains with their second iteration of the new 2.2-liter V-6 turbocharged formula. Did they make up the power deficit or the economy deficit that seemed almost insurmountable a fortnight ago?
There were questions as to whether the cars and engines could make it through this 200-lap trial, with the second hottest day in the 96-year history of the race, where temps hit 91 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Never mind would they be fast - would they survive?
As is customary, the race hit its stride with 25 laps to go. While Chevrolet drivers Marco Andretti (the lap leader with 59 in the books), James Hinchcliffe, pole sitter Ryan Briscoe led many of the early laps, toward the end of the contest it was Honda drivers Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato whose numbers were scored atop the Speedway's pylon.
And it was Franchitti, who fought with teammate Dixon over those final laps, finding himself in the right place at the right time - seemingly a master of circumstances - earning his third Indy 500 victory under caution, after Sato tried an opportunistic final-lap lunge on the bottom of the track in the first turn that surely didn't pay off.
"I moved over; I knew he was coming," Franchitti said. "I came back over and I moved up the track. He got loose underneath me. Kind of reminds me of Emerson and Little Al at the end there.
"It was a crazy race before that, getting spun in the first pit stop, having to fight our way from the back to the front. That was tough, but it also gave me a lot of confidence because I knew how good the car was at that point."
After his final fill-up, with 35 to go the team asked Franchitti to save fuel. "I came on the radio and said, 'been here before.' Off we went. Scott and I were fighting back and forwards, Takuma was in there, Tony came in and got in the lead.
"It was kind of like old times, the three of us back and forwards. I thought, 'Dan is laughing at us right now going at it," he remarked with a smile. But then Sato came in and Franchitti moved back up the track to give him more room.
"He lost the rear," he explained. "Turn one was the trickiest corner; if you went in with a tight line, it tended to get a bit loose. He lost the rear, came around and hit us. I managed to catch it. That was it."
Dixon finished second after leading 53 laps, 0.0295 seconds behind his Team Target teammate. "With 34 or so to go, nobody really wanted to lead because it was right on the margin there for fuel mileage.
"You get much better fuel mileage at least one spot back so we went back and forth to try to help each other instead of having to drop back too far and mix it up with people maybe we didn't want to.
"With this car," Dixon explained, "I think it really pulls up. Towards the end, with the grip level, it was easy to stay close, easy to pull past." Wistfully watching the video monitor as Franchitti, wife Ashley and team owner Chip Ganassi kissed the yard of bricks at start/finish, Dixon reminded, "This is the big event and you're going to do anything to put your face on the BorgWarner trophy. I think how it lined up with the top three, three of Dan's (last year's winner Wheldon) friends, it was a tough one, but you know, it was a great race."
Tony Kanaan took third place - and became the first Chevy finisher - leading seven laps in the process. It was Kanaan's best result since his 2004 championship year when he finished second.
"I didn't know where I was going to end up," after he took the lead to thunderous applause. "I think people like me here because I haven't won yet; I became more famous for not winning this thing than actually winning, so I'll keep trying."
Oriol Servia (who started 27th) and Briscoe completed the top five finishers. Servia, who became a Chevy driver with this race was "just so happy to bring the (Panther/DRR) Mecum Auctions car home in fourth place. We had a flat tire in the first stint and went a lap down," he said.
"Once I had my lap back I was last so I had to pass a lot of cars. I told the guys before we started I wanted to get them some prize money today and we did."
Briscoe was "feeling like I wish we had won the thing. I will say it was hot and slick today and it was tough out there. It's disappointing because we were so strong in practice, qualifying and started off on the pole; I'm proud of the whole team and IZOD for supporting me but I am a bit disappointed."
The balance of the top ten were James Hinchcliffe (Chevy), Justin Wilson (Honda), Charlie Kimball (Honda), Townsend Bell (Honda) and three-time winner Helio Castroneves, driving a Chevy for Team Penske. There were 23 finishers and 16 of them were on the lead lap at the close of this race. Ex-F1 racer Rubens Barrichello was the highest finishing rookie in 11th place, thoroughly enjoying his first taste of the Indianapolis 500 in his debut oval race.
The Scotsman is the tenth driver to have at least three wins in Indianapolis 500 history, joining Helio Castroneves as a three-time Indy winner with only nine starts. This was no gimme for Dario Franchitti - on his first pit stop on the 15th lap, he was tapped by EJ Viso, ending up in 30th place after the No. 50 crew replaced his nose cone, tires, fuel and sent him back underway. Franchitti made up five spots within six laps, made it up to 20th before his next stop and was in eighth place shortly after the 50-lap mark. This is the mark of a champion.
It hasn't been the best of seasons until now for Franchitti but he's played the cards he's been dealt and worked to make his car better as time went along.
As team manager Mike Hull explained, "We have a guy (in Dario) who hasn't reached his midlife crisis yet, 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. That's a pretty tough combination to beat."
The first cars out of the race, thanks to the 105-percentile rule were the two Lotus cars, Jean Alesi and Simona de Silvestro, parked before even ten laps were in the books. The first caution came on the 14th lap when rookie Bryan Clauson spun in the second turn - but never hit anything.
It lasted for three laps before a long green-flag period ensued, running to the 80th lap before caution flew a second time for a tangle between championship leader Will Power's Chevy and the Honda of Mike Conway, who had just run into a crewman on his pit stop. The front wing on the No. 14 ABC Supply car was bent and Conway spun coming out of the pits, collecting a disappointed Power.
Caution flew the third time on lap 90 when Ana Beatriz spun, also in turn 2 but there was another extended green-flag period until lap 146, when Sebastian Saavedra spun, also in turn 2. On lap 164, Josef Newgarden's Honda stalled on the backstretch, bringing out the fifth yellow; on lap 181 the field was slowed for Ed Carpenter's spin in the first turn. As so often happens, that caution begat another on lap 188 when Andretti made contact with the first turn wall. The final caution was on the run-up to the checkered flags, for Sato.
After the checkered flags, Franchitti, together with wife Ashley Judd invited Susie Wheldon to take the victory lap with them. it was a poignant moment. And of course brought everyone's mind back to Las Vegas last October.
"I think racing is emotion. Life is, as well," Franchitti said. "But racing, I think really exemplifies that. Vegas was the lowest of the low. Fontana '99 (when his best friend Greg Moore died) and Vegas last year were the lowest of the low.
"I think the reason we all got back in the cars, the reasons all the mechanics got back in pit lane, the fans came back to the races is days like today, the emotion of something like today. That's certainly why I got back in the car. There's not a feeling like standing in Victory Lane there. There isn't."
(c) 2012, High Gear Media.