Dario Franchitti beat Ryan Briscoe to the finish line by just 0.2488 seconds to win the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma and move closer to the lead in the IndyCar Series championship with three races left in the 2009 season.
Franchitti, who started on the pole, avoided a first-lap tangle that affected several contenders, including Franchitti's Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon, who finished 13th.
Mike Conway, who passed two cars in the final four laps, finished third, the best finish of his rookie season.
Even though he finished second for the seventh time this season, Briscoe now leads the IndyCar standings by four points over Franchitti, with Dixon – who led the drivers' standings coming into the race – now third, 20 points out of the lead. It marked the 13th time in 14 races that a different driver has led the standings.
“It's incredible,” Briscoe said. “What is it now, 13 lead changes in 14 races? I've never heard of anything like it before. Hopefully I can change that now.”
Franchitti said the pole position may have been the winning move, allowing him to stay ahead of the mess behind him (left) that sent Dixon and several other drivers reeling.
“The pole position really set us up today,” Franchitti said. “It allowed us to go and control the race. It was important to get a good start. We seemed to be good on starts and restarts today, so we kind of controlled the race from that point. It was a question of whether to push hard and build a gap or try to save fuel and just control. We decided to save fuel and control the pace.”
Briscoe, who tried to get past Franchitti on a restart with four laps remaining in the 75-lap race, fell behind initially but closed during the final lap.
“If we're going to win the championship, I'm going to have to win one of these last three,” Briscoe said. “We just have to keep getting these points. Coming in second gets a little old after awhile, but we'll win one of these someday.”
Franchitti led all 75 laps for his fourth victory of the season. This one involved a clever fuel-saving strategy that allowed him to maintain the lead while taking his first stint a lap farther than Briscoe.
Following Franchitti, Briscoe and Conway to the line were Mario Moraes in fourth, Hideki Mutoh in fifth and Oriol Servia in sixth. Justin Wilson started 22nd and finished seventh. Tony Kanaan (involved in a collision with Penske's Helio Castroneves, above, that led to the latter's retirement with suspension damage), Raphael Matos and Robert Doornbos rounded out the top 10.
Franchitti and Briscoe led the field up the hill into Turn 2 on the opening lap when several cars collided and spun behind them. Among those affected were Graham Rahal, who started fourth but was sidelined by the crash, and Dixon, who started 10th but was left idling in the middle of the track, waiting for course workers to push him back so he could get going again.
Dixon was spun out on the final turn of the final lap by Marco Andretti, but IndyCar officials ruled it avoidable contact and gave Dixon 13th place back. Andretti was moved back to 14th place.
One of the drivers involved in the opening-lap melee was Conway. “Everyone kept choking up on the inside,” he said. “I went to the outside into two. I was kind of gaining positions. I think someone hit the back of Hideki because he slowed down on the inside. it looked like I was going to get around him when I got hot from behind. I don't know who it was. Whoever was behind me at that point just nailed me from behind.”
The race was the last of the year on a road course. The series resumes Saturday night at Chicagoland Speedway, then moves to Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on Sept. 19 before the season finale Oct. 10 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Pos Driver Team Time/Gap
1. Dario Franchitti, Ganassi, 1h49m23.0073s
2. Ryan Briscoe, Penske, + 0.2488s
3. Mike Conway, Dreyer & Reinbold, + 0.8293s
4. Mario Moraes, KV, + 3.6171s
5. Hideki Mutoh, Andretti Green, + 5.4536s
6. Oriol Servia, Newman/Haas/Lanigan, + 6.3801s
7. Justin Wilson, Coyne, + 6.6997s
8. Tony Kanaan, Andretti Green, + 7.1808s
9. Raphael Matos, Luczo Dragon, + 8.5936s
10. Robert Doornbos, HVM, + 10.8175s
11. Ed Carpenter, Vision, + 11.3688s
12. Dan Wheldon, Panther, + 12.4000s
13. Scott Dixon, Ganassi, + 13.8968s
14. Marco Andretti, Andretti Green, + 14.8978s
15. Richard Antinucci, 3G, + 19.0650s
16. Danica Patrick, Andretti Green, + 1 lap
17. Milka Duno, Dreyer & Reinbold, + 4 laps
Helio Castroneves, Penske, 66 laps
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Foyt, 65 laps
Franck Montagny, Andretti Green, 57 laps
Graham Rahal, Newman/Haas/Lanigan, 30 laps
EJ Viso, HVM, 0 laps
Simon Crask photos