Dario Franchitti became IndyCar champion for the third time in four years, locking up the IZOD IndyCar Series crown by taking eighth place in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway while season-long points leader Will Power lost the title after brushing the wall and damaging his suspension.
In a spectacular night for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Franchitti's teammate Scott Dixon took the race victory, the Scot having led most of the race until Power's retirement allowed him to play it cool in the closing laps -- not that made ended his nervous moments.
“It was all going really well until that last pit stop when we got back of the pack and everyone was going four-wide and banging wheels,” said Franchitti, who matched Sam Hornish Jr. with three titles and winning in consecutive seasons. “The 18 car (Milka Duno) crashed right in front of us and almost took us out. It was a little too action-packed at the end of the race.”
It looked like Penske driver Power was facing an uphill battle from the outset, as the Ganassi duo settled into first and second, with Dixon running dutifully behind polesitter Franchitti and protecting him against attacks from rivals.
They could not dominate for long, though. By lap 33, Andretti Autosport's Tony Kanaan had worked his way into contention and managed to split the Ganassi duo, and in the first pit stops Penske vaulted Ryan Briscoe from fourth to second, allowing the Australian to put Franchitti under plenty of pressure.
After several laps of side by side racing, Briscoe got into the lead on lap 59, with Franchitti losing momentum in the process and falling to fourth. He had the speed to swiftly fight back, though, regaining the lead just 14 laps later, while Briscoe's tenure up front had only been brief before Kanaan passed him.
Meanwhile, Power had fallen as low as ninth in the first stint but picked up pace in the second half, coming back through to fourth behind Franchitti, Kanaan and Dixon, and ahead of the other two Penske drivers. But that was not going to be enough for the championship, especially once Franchitti had clinched the two bonus points for leading the most laps. And then came the terminal blow to Power's title hopes, when he understeered into the Turn 4 wall on lap 134.
It was a series of glancing blows rather than a violent impact, but the right-rear suspension was damaged. Six laps were lost while repairs were effected, and Power was soon back in again, not convinced that all the damage had been resolved. He eventually climbed from the car, and could only watch from the sidelines and hope Franchitti hit trouble.
“The championship is won over 17 races, not one," Power said. “Obviously, I'm very disappointed with the outcome. I really wanted to win this championship. It was at a point in the race where I felt I really had to push because Dario had led the most laps and was leading the race.
“I was trying to get around (Ryan) Hunter-Reay and I got up a little too high and brushed the wall and bent the suspension. The Verizon team had a great season and we have a lot to be proud of. This has been the best season of my career in motorsport and I've learned so much. We'll be coming back to win this thing next year.”
With his rival sidelined, Franchitti was playing it safe, relinquishing the lead to Dixon on the next restart and pitting under the next yellow to top up with fuel and avoid any danger of running dry late-on.
Marco Andretti (Andretti Autosport) fought through to have a brief spell in the lead, but lost his chance of victory by pitting for a fuel top-up under a debris caution with 35 laps to go, only for Duno to crash heavily 10 laps later and cause another yellow that resolved everyone else's fuel mileage worries.
The brief spell between those cautions had seen a stunning three-way battle for the lead between Dixon, Castroneves and Kanaan, but after the last restart Dixon broke clear, disappearing up the road to claim victory while Kanaan suddenly had his hands full fending off teammate Danica Patrick.
As Dixon went on to win by 2.7 seconds, Patrick finally muscled her way past Kanaan with a lap to go, holding on to clinch the runner-up spot by 0.0111sec.
“After I crossed the line, I said it wasn't a win but it sure felt like one,” said Patrick, who matched her season-best finish and moved up one position to 10th in the final standings (all four Andretti Autosport cars were in the top 10 in points). “This was a great way to end the season. We have had our high points and low points and the GoDaddy crew pulled it together for a strong end to the year. Hopefully we can continue to improve the car to be better for next year.”
Briscoe lost his chance of victory by pitting just before the yellow for Power's incident, but recovered to fourth ahead of teammate Castroneves.
Vitor Meira scored an outstanding sixth for A.J. Foyt's team, followed by Andretti, Franchitti, and Panther's Dan Wheldon. Alex Lloyd clinched the rookie of the year title by finishing 12th for Dale Coyne Racing.
Graham Rahal (Newman/Haas) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti) recovered from disappointing qualifying results to finish 10th and 11th, while Ed Carpenter (Panther/Vision), Takuma Sato (KV) and Justin Wilson (Dreyer & Reinbold) went in the opposite direction - falling back to 13th, 18th and 21st in the race after showing well on Friday.
Sato's teammate EJ Viso was a top six contender initially, until he pulled away from a pit stop with the fuel hose still attached. Viso's car was briefly engulfed in flames, eventually shed the fuel nozzle on the track, and then had to take a penalty, leaving him two laps down. Kanaan had a very similar, but less dramatic, incident later on and lost less time.
Almost unnoticed amid the championship battle, Sebastian Saavedra had an impressive first outing with Conquest, finishing 16th having run as high as 10th.
“With so many yellows, it turned into a fuel race and we had a few rough restarts," admitted Dixon. "This was a huge night for us, but more importantly for Dario for taking another championship. We definitely had a rough year and a lot of missed opportunities, but everyone is very excited about the outcome."
Pos Driver Team Time/Gap
1. Scott Dixon Ganassi 1h52m08.5580s
2. Danica Patrick Andretti + 2.7587s
3. Tony Kanaan Andretti + 2.7698s
4. Ryan Briscoe Penske + 3.7827s
5. Helio Castroneves Penske + 5.3324s
6. Vitor Meira Foyt + 7.2126s
7. Marco Andretti Andretti + 8.3637s
8. Dario Franchitti Ganassi + 11.1401s
9. Dan Wheldon Panther + 22.2521s
10. Graham Rahal Newman/Haas + 1 lap
11. Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti + 1 lap
12. Alex Lloyd Dale Coyne + 1 lap
13. Ed Carpenter Panther/Vision + 1 lap
14. Alex Tagliani FAZZT + 1 lap
15. Bertrand Baguette Conquest + 1 lap
16. Sebastian Saavedra Conquest + 1 lap
17. Raphael Matos De Ferran Dragon + 1 lap
18. Takuma Sato KV + 1 lap
19. EJ Viso KV + 2 laps
20. Hideki Mutoh Newman/Haas + 2 laps
21. Justin Wilson Dreyer & Reinbold + 2 laps
22. Sarah Fisher Sarah Fisher + 3 laps
23. Simona de Silvestro HVM + 3 laps
Milka Duno Dale Coyne 170 laps
Will Power Penske 143 laps
Ana Beatriz Dreyer & Reinbold 42 laps
Mario Moraes KV 25 laps