JOLIET, Ill. – Dario Franchitti squeezed out half a lap more than Scott Dixon on their final fuel load Sunday and that’s all it took for the Scot to win his first IndyCar Series title in what might be his farewell to open-wheel racing.
The two leaders, who came into the season-finale at Chicagoland Speedway with Franchitti leading the standings by just three points, both stopped to top off their 22-gallon fuel tanks during a caution 54 laps from the end on the 11/2-mile oval.
It looked as if Dixon, the 2003 series champion, was going to pull it off, taking the lead when Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dan Wheldon ran out of fuel on lap 194 of the 200-lap event.
With Franchitti right on his rear wing and expecting to have to make a fuel-only stop that could have cost them dearly, Danica Patrick, one of Franchitti’s Andretti Green Racing teammates, pitted for fuel on lap 195 and brought out a yellow flag when she spun in the pits.
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With a few more laps of caution to help them conserve fuel, both leaders tried to make it to the end.
The green flag waved with two laps to go and Franchitti drove to the outside of Dixon and pulled alongside. But he wasn’t able to get past and, as the two drove down the long backstretch at about 215 mph, it appeared Dixon had it made.
But, as they approached turn three, Dixon’s car suddenly slowed, Franchitti drove by and went on to win the race. Dixon coasted over the finish line 1.844 seconds behind, in second place in both the race and the championship. Franchitti won the title and the $1 million prize that goes with it by 13 points.
Franchitti, who also won his first Indianapolis 500 in May and walked away from a pair of wild, airborne crashes late in the season, was blown away by the finish.
After the new champion, who is expected to move to NASCAR in 2008, parked his car and climbed out, he knelt behind the rear wing for a few seconds of quiet thought.
“We came down that back stretch, and I was drafting him,” Franchitti said. “I was trying to get the slingshot. Just as I pulled out, I saw him slow down and I almost hit the back of him.
“Some good fuel saving. Some great strategy by my boys. The whole Andretti Green team, they’re the best.”
Dixon could hardly believe his fate.
“It’s just a shame that it came down to a fuel race,” he said, shrugging his shoulders in disappointment. “Our car was clearly quicker all day. It wasn’t our day. The 27 (Franchitti) was getting better fuel mileage all day, and that’s what it came down to. It’s tough, man.”
“We had the same amount of fuel, but we just didn’t use it wisely, I guess.”
The 34-yedar-old Franchitti started from the pole but lost the top spot at the start to three-time series champion Sam Hornish Jr. Struggling with handling in the early going, Franchitti continued to go backward, with Dixon slipping past him into fourth place on lap 26.
Knowing that the championship would go to whichever of them finished ahead of the other, Dixon stayed ahead of his rival most of the race.
Meanwhile, Penske Racing teammates Hornish, the defending series champion, and Helio Castroneves dominated the race until both had to give up track position late in the race for fuel stops. Hornish and Castroneves led 90 and 56 laps, respectively, and wound up third and fourth, a lap behind the leaders.
Patrick, who spent most of the day running in the top six, wound up 11th, while Tony Kanaan, another of the Andretti Green drivers and the only other title contender heading into the 17th and final race of the season, had to pit with a flat tire early in the race, got out of sequence with the leaders and finished out of contention in sixth.
Marco Andretti, the fourth Andretti Green entry, brought out a caution on lap 35 when it appeared his suspension broke, sending his car hard into the wall. The son of team co-owner Michael Andretti was taken to a hospital, where he was released after a CT scan was negative.
Vitor Meira crashed on lap 136 and the ensuing caution lasted 15 laps as track workers had to repair the energy-absorbing SAFER Barrier. The yellow came out with Dixon making a scheduled pit stop and Franchitti the only leader who had not gone in the pits at that point.
Both teams decided to bring the leaders in to top off their fuel tanks, setting up the dramatic finish.