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Friday, June 18, 2021

Franchitti wins IRL season title

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Dario Franchitti’s return to IndyCar racing couldn’t have gone better. He’s the IRL champion once again.

Franchitti successfully emerged from one of the closest points races in series history Saturday, winning the season-ending Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the first caution-free IRL race ever.

The 2007 champion — who skipped 2008 to explore NASCAR — held off Target Chip Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon and Penske Racing’s Ryan Briscoe.

So on the 10th day of the 10th month of the year, Franchitti’s No. 10 car reigned supreme over the IRL.

“I can’t believe it,” Franchitti said. “It all worked out.”

He sat back and saved fuel over much of the final 50 laps, and when his two fellow contenders pitted late, the title was his.

“Congrats to him,” Briscoe said. “It hurts.”

Franchitti’s wife, Ashley Judd, got a huge hug from Chip Ganassi as soon as the checkered flag fell, and Dixon was one of the first to slap Franchitti a high-five as the new champion emerged from the track.

“We were sticking to our strategy,” Franchitti said. “Our car was really good at the end.”

Franchitti finished with 616 points, unofficially 11 ahead of Dixon and 12 ahead of Briscoe.

Tony Kanaan was fourth and Helio Castroneves fifth, but on this day, they were afterthoughts.

It was a three-man race for the title, and from the very beginning Saturday, a three-man race at Homestead, too.

Dixon, Briscoe and Franchitti opened a lead of nearly 1 1/2 seconds by the time the race was 10 laps old and piled on from there — 2 1/2 seconds after 15 laps, 3 1/2 seconds after 20 laps, 10 seconds by the 30-lap mark.

By the time the race was half over, the three contenders were the only ones on the lead lap.

“There was two races,” Castroneves said. “The top three guys, and the rest of the field.”

Outside of the three title contenders going back and forth, the only drama was in the pits: Danica Patrick and Dan Wheldon — who have some history, going back to Milwaukee in 2007 when they brushed cars during the race and brushed bodies on pit road after the race — collided again during a pit stop with about 45 laps left, sending both far back in the pack.

Really, though, this race and championship might have been decided 10 laps earlier.

Briscoe and Dixon pitted together with 56 laps remaining, with Franchitti coming in six laps later. So when Briscoe and Dixon came in again to top off with fuel with about seven laps left, Franchitti stayed on the track, knowing he had enough to get to the finish.

When Briscoe left the pit that final time, Franchitti whizzed past right in front of him — and so did the title.

“How great is my husband at being fast while saving fuel?” Judd said, shrieking and raising her arms high in triumph.

All the engineering and calculations in the world couldn’t have had anybody thinking that this race would be run without a single caution flag.

But it was, and Franchitti couldn’t have been happier about that.

“Definitely loving it right now,” Franchitti said. “Loving this IndyCar series.”

Maybe it was fitting that it was an IndyCar race unlike any other, because it was an IndyCar season unlike any other.

Helio Castroneves started the year in court, fighting tax evasion charges, and won the Indianapolis 500 about five weeks after being acquitted. Perennial IRL title contender Tony Kanaan went winless, the first time that’s happened during his seven full seasons. Danica Patrick’s future is unknown, although IRL expects its most marketable driver to stay put “for a reasonably good term,” in the words IndyCar commercial division president Terry Angstadt used last week.

And the first 16 races before the finale at Homestead — the first time IRL’s titlist was crowned in South Florida — decided nothing.

Dixon started the weekend with a five-point lead over Franchitti and an eight-point cushion over Briscoe. Franchitti inched a point closer to Dixon by winning the pole in Friday qualifying, and all three drivers came into the finale saying they thought a win at Homestead would be necessary to claim the seasonlong championship.

Turns out, Franchitti was right.

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