Dario breaks his duck on Milwaukee's Mile
26 July 2004
Since leaving ChampCars for the Indy Racing League at the end of 2002 Dario Franchitti's luck has turned foul. He spent all of 2003 as a spectator following a quad-bike accident that resulted in a back injury, and while team-mates Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan have been winning in 2004 Dario's car has either broken or got involved in other people's accidents. But the tide finally turned at Milwaukee and in dominant fashion as Dario led the most laps on his way to his first IRL victory.
The title pace-setters were neatly gathered at the front end of the grid for the IRL's first-ever visit to Milwaukee's famous flat mile, series leader Tony Kanaan sitting ahead of current hotshot Buddy Rice, but neither could match Rice's team-mate Vitor Meira in qualifying. Rahal-Letterman's number two driver took pole and hoped for a better time than last week, when he led more than half the race at Nashville only to lose out in the pits and finish way down the field with a sick car.
The field was already minus one as they came to the green flag for the Menard's AJ Foyt Indy 225, reigning champion Scott Dixon forced to sit out the race after heavy contact with the wall in qualifying. Dan Wheldon's title aspirations were dented too, an engine change forcing his #26 Andretti-Green Dallara-Honda to the back. Team-mate Kanaan's similar car got away best from second on the grid, Meira forcing his #17Rahal-Letterman G force-Honda into second while Rice in the #15 car dropped to fourth behind Sam Hornish Jnr's #6 Penske Dallara-Toyota.
The leading pair quickly opened a two-second gap to their pursuit and by lap 17 had caught the tail-enders, Hornish seizing his chance to move ahead of Kanaan into the lead. Meira still held third, but Rice had been demoted a further place by the second #3 Penske car of Helio Castroneves. Helio passed Meira on lap 29, and matters then remained static until the first yellow flew on lap 39 when Scott Sharp rotated his #8 Kelley Racing Dallara-Toyota in turn four, restarting after a push from the safety crews. Already suffering was Tomas Scheckter, the #4 Panther Racing Dallara-Chevrolet in the pits with what would prove terminal gear problems.
Everyone pitted under the caution, shaking up the order as both Brian Herta's #7 Andretti-Green Dallara-Honda and Castroneves beat out Kanaan and Hornish. The green flew on lap 46 but briefly as AJ Foyt IV spun into the wall, knocking the nose off his Dallara-Toyota, not likely to please team boss and Grandad AJ in the race named after him. They went green again on lap 51 and Herta led away, within eight laps lapping the tail-enders with Castroneves in hot pursuit. Soon he was joined by team-mate Hornish, demoting Kanaan to fourth which immediately became fifth as the sister #27 Andretti-Green car of Dario Franchitti moved up.
Franchitti was looking inspired, taking third on lap 80 and second two laps later when Herta headed pitwards. New leader Castroneves had no answer for the blue and red Andretti-Green machine, and on lap 106 Dario made the most of lapped traffic to take the lead, Castroneves also dropping behind the now rapidly progressing Rice. Just in time the yellow appeared for debris and to allow Tora Takagi's stalled car to be towed in, and everyone headed for fuel and tyres, Franchitti emerging with his lead intact.
They restarted on lap 122, Franchitti still ahead but Rice having lost out in the pits to the two Penskes. He picked off Castroneves for third on lap 136, by which time Franchitti was almost two seconds clear, only for the yellow to fly again on lap 143. Darren Manning had progressed to fourth spot only to put his #10 Target Chip Ganassi G Force-Toyota into the wall and out of the race after an argument with Castroneves. Helio lost out too, dropping out of the top 10 as everybody made what should be their final pit stop. This proved terminal for Dan Wheldon, a broken halfshaft sidelining him, while Sharp and the #5 G Force-Honda of Adrian Fernandez bounced off each other on the way out of pit road.
Hornish beat Franchitti out of the pits but when the green flew on lap 155 Dario simply rounded the Penske and within four laps had stretched his lead to over two seconds, Rice third and Kanaan back up to fourth ahead of Meira and the strong-running Townsend Bell in the #2 Panther Racing Dallara-Chevrolet. And that's how matters stayed past lap 200, Franchitti lapping right up to the eighth place car.
Rice finally found a way past Hornish, and with 25 laps left started closing down the leader. The last thing Franchitti wanted to see now was a yellow, which is just what he got on lap 212 as Jacques Lazier hit the wall hard in turn one, his #20 Patrick Racing Dallara-Chevrolet coming to rest very secondhand in turn two. But this time Dario was not to be denied, powering away as the green flew with six to go, Rice closing but unable to find enough to overhaul the Andretti-Green machine.
“I've got to try to remember it all first,” grinned Franchitti in victory lane. “It wasn't the best start I've ever made, but it was clean. When we put new tires on, the car really came to life at that point, and I started moving through the field. On the last pit stop, I think Hornish beat us out, and I don't know what he was doing on the restart. There's a certain speed you're supposed to go, and he was doing, like, 50 miles an hour or something and checking everybody up, so there was a no-start. On the second start, he just kept coming down, trying to squeeze me. I was lucky the car was as good as it was. I was able to accelerate hard on the inside, get past him and get a nice lead.”
Rice was reasonably happy with second, saying; “Finishing in the top three is always a good deal. It's looking good in the points right now. It's good for Rahal Letterman. We're doing exactly what we need to do: marching forward.” Not quite enough to overhaul Kanaan, however, his fourth place keeping him 64 points clear in the title chase. “We just didn't have the car to win today, but we scored some good points,” he said, adding; “When we can't win, that is what we have to focus on, and today we got everything we could.”
He'll be hoping for more, and his team-mate Franchitti that the good luck is now permanently on his side, as attention switches to the fast banking of Michigan in seven days time.