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Franchitti on Target at the Beach

20 April 2009

IndyCar returnee Dario Franchitti benefited, not once, but twice from conveniently timed full-course cautions to claim victory in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

The Scot, who took outright pole for the ALMS event - in an LMP2 car - on the famous street circuit two seasons ago, held off a determined Will Power for the final nine laps after a caution had given the Australian polesitter the chance to close up.

Repeating Power's original start, however, Franchitti got the jump on the pack and went on to win by little over three seconds as Target Chip Ganassi Racing replied to arch rival Penske's win in the season-opener two weeks ago.

Power, who faces just one more guaranteed outing in Penske's third car following Helio Castroneves' return to action, came up fractionally short in the perfect audition for full-time employment, leading comfortably early on before coming back through the field in the closing stages to sit on Franchitti's tail at the fifth and final caution.

Like the winner, others benefited from the timing of the various cautions, with third, fourth and fifth Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick and Dan Wheldon all finding themselves thrust in to leading roles by their strategy.

A third Andretti Green car, that of Marco Andretti, took sixth place, ahead of Castroneves and leading rookies Raphael Matos and Robert Doornbos, while Alex Tagliani posted another top ten result for Conquest Racing.

There was less good fortune for St Petersburg winner Ryan Briscoe, while defending series champion Scott Dixon to make heavy weather of his title defence, the pair coming together during the final caution. Dixon, turned around by his rival, dropped to 15th, while his rival finished only 13th after being handed a penalty by race stewards.

Franchitti started second but lost two spots in the first turn of the 85-lap race. He moved back up to second on lap 15 before pitting next time around. The stop - for fuel and tyres - proved to be fortuitous as fellow Briton Mike Conway found the wall at turn one just two laps later, bringing out a full-course caution. As the rest of the field cycled through their pit-stops, Franchitti assumed the lead on lap 32.

The Scot, series champion in 2007, then benefited from a similar scenario after pitting under green conditions on lap 53, one lap before another Conway-inspired full-course caution. From that point on, Franchitti was unheaded, leading the final 29 laps and opening up a lead of several seconds over polesitter Power, having got the jump on the Aussie at the restart.

The win was Franchitti's ninth in the IndyCar Series, but surprisingly his first on any road or street course as he racked up a quarter-century of successes for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

“I got lots of Champ Car street and road course wins, but I haven't had one in the IndyCar Series, so to finally get one feels good for all kinds of reasons," the Scot admitted, "After everything we went through last year, and then Chip coming up and saying 'hey, do you want to drive my IndyCar?', we're now back here winning together. Having finished second to his cars here twice, I said to him last night 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em', and here we are. It's a great day!”

Power again underlined the talent that could be sidelined by Castroneves' return, finishing second in the #12 Team Verizon Wireless car two days after relinquishing the seat of the #3 to the Brazilian. Power now sits second in the overall standings after two top six finishes in as many outings with Penske, having enjoyed his best IndyCar Series weekend to date.

“We had no radio and no telemetry, so I was doing it off the steering wheel and off the pit board," the Australian revealed later, "I'm very happy, and second is very good. I feel happy for all the guys as they put a lot of effort in. I really want to thank Roger Penske and Tim Cindric for bringing this Verizon Wireless car here for me. I really appreciate it. They've given me a fantastic ride, and I can't thank them enough.”

Kanaan returned to the podium as he celebrated his 100th race with third place in a strong Andretti Green showing. The Brazilian had started back in eleventh spot, but came through to claim a series record 68th top five finish in the reliveried Dr Pepper machine..

“We work better under pressure, I guess," he smiled, "It's a good day for Andretti Green Racing, and a great job for the 7-Eleven team. That's how we count points and move forward. When we have a car to win, we win, and, when we don't, we finish on the podium.”

Patrick came from even further back, rising from a disappointing 22nd on the grid as she and Michael Andretti plotted a fuel saving strategy that fell beautifully in line with the day's cautions. The Motorola machine gained 18 places in the course of 85 laps - the most of any car - and Patrick ran second on merit for a while.

“It was a good job on the strategy and getting that right," she acknowledged, "We pitted at the right times - I believe they just said Dario and I were on that strategy - and, if the yellows would have fallen just right, we'd have had the lead. There was just no passing out there but, unfortunately, I made a little mistake and Will got by and then Tony got by me because of the blend line - there's no way he would have beat me out, because I passed him still on the track, but it's the way that the blend line works..."

Wheldon, too, benefited from some good strategic thinking from the Panther Racing team, climbing nine places from 14th after qualifying despite being caught up in a multi-car shunt at the hairpin in the first half of the race.

“So far, the team has done a fantastic job calling the races, and it was certainly a different race as there wasn't a lot of passing out there," the Briton commented, "Once I got off the black tyres - which I really struggled with - it really came alive, and the track rubbering in helped us as well. But team did a really good job - I thought we were pretty competitive all weekend. It was important for us to score points going into Kansas, because that's a race I'm very confident about..."

Justin Wilson was also caught up in the lap 25 melee, and was the only retirement because of it, joining EJ Viso on the sidelines early on. Conway and Mario Moraes were the only other listed retirees, despite Ed Carpenter also finding the tyre wall during the race.

Behind Andretti, meanwhile, Castroneves finished his return in seventh spot, showing few signs of rust in his performance, even if some of his muscles weren't quite back in racing shape. The Brazilian also got caught by one of the yellows, which dropped him out of a potential top five finish.

"It was rough in the beginning because I didn't want to touch anybody - I saw that the nose of my car had some scratches, but that's what happens when you haven't been in the car for a while," he admitted, "It takes a little time for you to judge the distance [between cars]. I only had an hour-and-a-half [in practice and qualifying] and most of it was by myself. When you run behind someone, the car changes a lot but, finally, I got a rhythm and was able to get going. It's just good to sound like a driver again!"


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