INDIANAPOLIS – Turns out the Indianapolis 500's best salute to Dan Wheldon was a thrilling, memorable race with the right stars aligned at the end.
Wheldon won last year's race in the final turn, his second Indy 500 win. But he was tragically killed in a crash during the 2011 IndyCar Series finale in Las Vegas. His face was on this year's tickets, his memory was honored before the race and fans were given cardboard sunglasses to salute him during the race.
But real nod to Wheldon couldn't have been orchestrated in advance.
Three of Wheldon's good friends – Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan – battled for the win in the final 10 laps, along with Japan's Takuma Sato. Franchitti won, fending off Sato's final-lap pass. Dixon was second and Kanaan third. Sato wrecked trying to pass Franchitti on the final lap.
“I don't think it could have been a better result for Dan," Kanaan said. "Wherever he is right now, he's definitely making fun of Sato, I can tell you that, and he's giving Dario a tap on the back, and he was going to call me a wanker that I didn't win this thing. I'm glad this is over. I hope we can all move on and just remember Dan the way Dan was – a happy guy and a wonderful friend.”
Franchitti saluted Wheldon after the race by including Wheldon's wife, Susie, in the celebration of the win.
Franchitti, who first won the race in 2007, also won in 2010, the year before Wheldon's last triumph. His mug will be on both sides of Wheldon's on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
“To be on this trophy on either side of Dan,” Franchitti said. “That means more than anything.”
Franchitti and Dixon, both driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, traded the lead 10 times over the final 47 laps. Kanaan passed both of them for the lead briefly coming out of a restart.
“Aside from the Dan factor, everybody knew when we come here it's a marquee event and you'd do anything to put your face on the Borg-Warner,” Dixon said. “A lot of us, those close to Dan, wanted that a little bit more and in the back of your mind, you thought he'd help you out a little bit.”
Wheldon's win last year came when he passed a wrecked JR Hildebrand on the final lap. Franchitti won when Sato wrecked attempting a final pass.
Sato tried to go low past Franchitti in Turn One, but Franchitti held his ground and Sato edged onto the white line, lost control of the rear of his car and spun.
It was a hold-your-breath moment in a terrific race. The day was hot, officially tying for second-hottest Indy 500 ever at 91 degrees. The racing was on fire, too, with 10 different leaders and 35 lead changes.
IndyCar Series officials had to pull the two cars with Lotus engines off the track early for being too slow, but everyone else was on top of their game. Seven lead changes in the first 20 laps hinted it would be a day for dramatic racing.
James Hinchcliffe passed pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe on the first lap. Briscoe passed him back on the second. There was a clear sling-shot ability to pass using the lead driver's tow, most evident at the end.
Wheldon's career was built on the combination of daring speed and smart maneuvering, and his friends all displayed those traits.
Franchitti overcame an early incident when he spun in the pits and fell to the back of the field. He worked his way through traffic, finally passing Sato for the lead on Lap 153, effectively signaling a sprint to the finish.
“We've gone through these new cars and new engines and there were a lot of unknowns going into today's race,” Ganassi said. “It turned out to be a great race, with a hell of a lot of passing. There wasn't anybody saving fuel at the end.”
No, everyone was too busy savoring the end. The crowd pulled hard for Kanaan – who has never won Indy – roaring when he took the lead. But if he couldn't win, then another Wheldon buddy was the next best thing.
“As hard as I concentrated, I thought 'Dan's laughing his ass off at us going at it,' ” Franchitti said.
Later, Franchitti said, “Racing is emotion. Life is, as well. Racing really exemplifies that, if that's the right word. Vegas was the lowest of lows. This is the reason we all got back in the cars and the mechanics got back in pit lane and the fans came back. It's days like today, when you feel the emotions you felt today.”
It was an emotional day, especially for those who knew Wheldon.
And it was cathartic to see Franchitti, Dixon and Kanaan thinking of their lost friend, and smiling at his memory.