By Jeff Olson
Dario Franchitti used an early pit stop to his strategic advantage Sunday and went on to claim victory in the 35th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, officially reintroducing himself as a prime threat to win the IndyCar championship after a year away.
Franchitti pitted on the 16th lap – before most of the rest of the field hit the pits under caution the following lap – giving himself the necessary track position. It was his first victory with Target Chip Ganassi Racing after spending the 2008 season with Ganassi’s NASCAR team, and Franchitti’s first victory since his IndyCar championship season in 2007.
“I didn’t expect to be coming back, but I’m bloody glad I did,” Franchitti said. “That time away showed me what I was missing. With unification and everything else, it all added up. Had I stayed, I’m not sure what kind of a job I could have been able to do. Things have worked out very well.”
Following Franchitti to the finish line was Will Power, who started from the pole but lost the lead when his car suddenly slowed on the 17th lap. Tony Kanaan drove from 11th starting position to third, while his Andretti Green Racing teammate, Danica Patrick, drove from 22nd to fourth.
The keys to victory, Franchitti said, were attaining the track position and then maintaining it while saving fuel.
“People think that when you’re saving fuel you’re driving slowly,” Franchitti said. “Trust me, you’re not. You’re braking later and carrying more speed through the corner to make up for your lack of speed on the straightaway.”
Power leapt ahead of Franchitti at the start of the race, letting Matos slip by for second place. Sixteen laps later, Matos passed Power’s waning car for the lead as E.J. Viso got caught out and clipped Scott Dixon’s car, sending Viso out of the race.
Six laps after that, five cars were involved in a pileup in the Turn 11 hairpin. Justin Wilson’s No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Dallara-Honda snapped a rear wishbone and was sidelined, while the other four drivers involved – Dan Wheldon, Darren Manning, Mario Moraes and Hideki Mutoh – continued on.
The rush to the pits after the accident put Marco Andretti, who started 19th, in the lead. Franchitti, who pitted before most of the field did after Viso’s crash, made the strategy work by assuming the lead when Andretti was forced to pit on the 32nd lap.
Wheldon recovered to finish fifth, while Andretti was sixth, Helio Castroneves seventh and Matos eighth.
The victory put Franchitti atop the IndyCar Series standings after two races, 15 points ahead of Power. While Team Penske officials announced Friday that Power would drive the team’s No. 12 car at the Indianapolis 500 in May, the team said again Sunday that it would not field a car for Power next week at Kansas.
“I’m not a very good spectator,” Power said. “I don’t know if I can handle standing at the side of the track watching everybody else race. It will be tough, but I’m just happy to have the opportunity.”
Franchitti pulled away from Power during the final stages of the race, eventually winning by 3.3182 seconds after a restart with seven laps remaining. Power said he was attempting to save fuel, but “if we had been able to go full rich, we would have been on it.”
When told that Power thought he could have caught the Ganassi No. 10 Dallara-Honda had he gone full rich, Franchitti rolled his eyes. “At one point they came on the radio and said, ‘What changes do you want?’ I said, ‘I’m not pushing the car hard enough to know what it can do on the limit,’” Franchitti said. “That tells you something.”
Kanaan led a recovery of sorts for AGR, which raised eyebrows Saturday with an unusually poor performance in qualifying. He gained eight positions, while Patrick gained 18 and Andretti 13.
“We work better under pressure, I guess,” Kanaan joked. “That’s how we count points and move forward. When we have a car to win, we win. When we don’t, we finish on the podium.”
Patrick, who crashed in qualifying Saturday and had to start at the back of the field, said her team never gave up. “I’m proud of how we all kept our heads down and made a result out of it instead of getting down,” she said.
An unusual situation cost two drivers strong finishes. As drivers were warming their tires under caution on the 77th lap of the 85-lap race, Ryan Briscoe suddenly accelerated and slammed into the rear of Scott Dixon’s car, which was fifth at the time but finished 15th.
Briscoe said it was a matter of misplaced timing. “We were warming our tires,” said Briscoe, who finished 13th. “I accelerated while he was getting on the brakes.”
Another strange circumstance cost Power the lead early in the race. On the 17th lap, Power suddenly slowed when he thought he heard “full-course yellow” over his malfunctioning radio. Matos passed Briscoe while the rest of the field bunched up behind Power, and Dixon and E.J. Viso collided, ending Viso’s race.
“Suddenly two cars came cruising past me, and I realized it wasn’t,” Power said. “Then a couple of corners later it was a full-course yellow. I had no radio communication, so am I supposed to pass these cars back? Was it a full-course caution? It was a little confusing.”
The IndyCar Series resumes next weekend at Kansas Speedway, the first race on an oval after two street races to start the season.
Pos Driver Team Gap
1. Dario Franchitti Ganassi
2. Will Power Penske + 3.3182s
3. Tony Kanaan Andretti Green + 4.0537s
4. Danica Patrick Andretti Green + 5.0742s
5. Dan Wheldon Panther + 6.5655s
6. Marco Andretti Andretti Green + 7.5900s
7. Helio Castroneves Penske + 8.6332s
8. Raphael Matos Luczo Dragon + 9.4835s
9. Robert Doornbos Newman/Haas/Lanigan + 9.9583s
10. Alex Tagliani Conquest + 13.6185s
11. Ryan Hunter-Reay Vision + 15.2097s
12. Graham Rahal Newman/Haas/Lanigan + 15.8507s
13. Ryan Briscoe Penske + 1m05.1013s
14. Vitor Meira Foyt + 1 lap
15. Scott Dixon Ganassi + 1 lap
16. Darren Manning Dreyer & Reinbold + 1 lap
17. Stanton Barrett 3G + 1 lap
18. Ed Carpenter Vision + 3 laps
Driver Team Laps
Mario Moraes KV 71
Hideki Mutoh Andretti Green 60
Mike Conway Dreyer & Reinbold 51
Justin Wilson Dale Coyne 24
EJ Viso HVM 16