As the 2012 Indianapolis 500 approached its climax, it was hard for anyone to shake thoughts of the 2011 champion Dan Wheldon from their minds. Three of his closest friends in the sport - Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan - were battling for the race win and the chance to have their likeness added to the side of Borg-Warner trophy alongside that of Wheldon.

"Kind of like old times, the three of us back and forward," said Franchitti after the race. "I thought, Dan is laughing at us right now going at it."

There had been a lot or memories of Wheldon throughout the day, including the sight of his 2011 Indy 500-winning car being driven around Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the race to the sound of a bagpipe lament.

"The thing that really got me was the love that the fans showed for Dan and the tribute that we were all able to pay him," referring to the moments on laps 26 and 98 when fans in the grandstand donned copies of Wheldon's trademark white-rimmed sunglasses to pay their own respects. "Susie came around the car afterwards, to see the reaction of how much he was loved. To me, that was a great thing to see. Yeah, made me happy."

After the race, Franchitti dedicated the win to Wheldon - and also to Michael Wanser, the six-year-old son of Target Ganassi team manager Barry Wanser who passed away from leukaemia just a couple of weeks after Wheldon himself died in the terrible multi-car accident in the IZOD IndyCar Series season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October.

There had been much speculation that Franchitti might call time on his racing career after the loss of Wheldon, and the Scot admitted that it had been a dark time for him.

"I think racing is emotion. Life is, as well, but racing I think really exemplifies that, if that's the right word. And Vegas was the lowest of the low. Fontana '99 and Vegas last year were the lowest of the low," he said, recalling the loss of another good friend in the sport, Canada's Greg Moore 13 years ago when he himself was still relatively new to the world of IndyCar.

"I think the reason we all got back in the cars, the reasons all the mechanics got back in pit lane, the fans came back to the races, is days like today, the emotion of something like today," he continued. "That's certainly why I got back in the car. There's not a feeling like standing in Victory Lane there. There isn't."

That victory had hardly seemed likely after a disappointing qualifying session a week before - ironically taking place right on Dario's 39th birthday. Not that anyone felt much like eating cake to celebrate afterwards.

"You know how upset I was on qualifying day. I was angry," he agreed. "I had no expectations for the race, but I thought we'd be quick, and we weren't.
I think I was fairly honest and clear about being upset with it."

Even Franchitti's team boss Chip Ganassi had been downcast after Pole Day. "Believe me, last Saturday after qualifying, during the Fast Nine, I was on my way to Charlotte to the stock-car race," said Ganassi. "We weren't in it. I was sort of depressed a little bit. I wanted to get out of here. This brought me back today."

Franchitti thanked everyone who had been involved in turning around the team's fortunes in the days between qualifying and final practice on Carb Day when the squad suddenly looked to be much more on the pace.

"It was very impressive. Just look to those guys out there, I thanked every one of them. We've been in battle together a few times before. They continue to amaze me. When we're up against Chevy, who are smart people, what they did today, beating them, but the turnaround from last week is something very special ... Look at the crew today, the way they dealt with that front wing problem. They just got on with it. It was pretty impressive.

"Dixie and I, we get on with it. We show up with the best car that we can. The engineering brains, they work so bloody hard. We all try to work together to try to come up with the best cars, go racing, see what the race will give us," he added.

Franchitti's win makes him a three-time Indy 500 champion: only ten drivers in history have won three or more Indy 500 titles, putting Franchitti in some very select company indeed - including AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears (all four-time winners), Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser and Helio Castroneves. And this history does indeed mean a lot to Dario.

"Today I was lucky enough to be in the green room," Franchitti said. "TK and I were sitting together in a quiet corner. Parnelli [Jones], Unser, Rutherford came up. This is cool. TK and I were getting our pictures taken. We were like a couple of kids. We were with the legends of the sport.

"I'm very proud of the achievements, whether it's Indy wins, championships, every one of the race wins," he added, but insisted that as much as he valued past successes, his focus was firmly fixed forward.

"Sometimes I look back, but generally I'm trying to look forward. When I retire, that's the time to look back and hang out with my friends here, hang over the fence, shout abuse at Dixie, Will, Tony, all the guys that are still racing," he laughed.

No sign of that happening any time soon, however. You can't help shake the feeling that Franchitti at least has his eyes on a fourth Indy 500 - if not already targeting becoming the first man in history to win five.