By JENNA FRYER, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Dan Wheldon couldn't win his third Indianapolis 500. Dario Franchitti did it for him.
And if it wasn't going to be Franchitti, then it would be Scott Dixon. Maybe even Tony Kanaan.
No matter what, one of Wheldon's best buddies was going to Victory Lane.
In the end, they celebrated a 1-2-3 sweep that honored D-Dub, their missing friend.
Franchitti stamped his name in the record books by winning his third Indy 500 on Sunday, a day that started and ended as a tribute to Wheldon, who won the race a year ago but was killed in an October crash in the IndyCar season finale. As his three friends lined up with six laps remaining for the final restart — Kanaan out front, Chip Ganassi teammates Franchitti and Dixon second and third — they couldn't help but wonder if Wheldon was at play.
"Kind of like old times, the three of us back and forwards," Franchitti said. "I thought, 'Dan is laughing at us right now going at it.'"
It was an absolutely fitting finish, even if the elation for Franchitti's win was tempered by the heartbreak for two other deserving drivers. Dixon, a one-time Indy 500 winner, temporarily relocated his family to St. Petersburg, Fla., to support Wheldon's wife and two sons, and Kanaan, 0 for 11 now at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had openly wept following the death of his former teammate.
"I think a lot of us that were close to Dan, you know, you wanted it that little bit more," Dixon said. "I guess maybe in the back of your mind, you figured he would probably help you out today, too. I think in that situation, seeing how it lined up with the top three, three of Dan's friends, it was a tough one."
Franchitti won a wheel-to-wheel, last-lap battle, sailing away to the checkered flag when Takuma Sato spun out trying to make one last pass on the inside and slammed into the wall.
The race had shaped into what was expected to be a duel to the finish between Franchitti and Dixon. But when the Scot made his final pass of Dixon with two laps to go, he pulled Sato with him and it sapped Dixon's momentum.
So the last-lap pass attempt was Sato's for the taking, and he couldn't pull it off as he hugged the inside white line through Turn 1. His wheels appeared to touch Franchitti's, he spun hard into the wall, and Franchitti sailed past for the win — this one, just like the first two, under caution.
Dixon crossed the finish line in second, and Kanaan was third.
"Everybody up there was a friend of Dan's, and that about sums it up. Everybody loved him," Franchitti said as bagpipes played over the public address system.
"What a race! What a race!" Franchitti said. "I think D-Dub would be proud of that one."
Dixon met his teammate in Victory Lane, and Franchitti was reminded of the delicate balance in celebrating a team win vs. beating a teammate.
"I want to beat Scott. I know he wants to beat me. I don't think I've met maybe a more competitive individual, except maybe Dan in the early years," Franchitti said. "He's my buddy. Out on the track, he's competition, but a teammate, and then afterward he's my friend. I see the disappointment in his face. I see the disappointment in T.K.'s face.
"I think both those guys will get more championships and Indy wins. They're just too good not to. When you beat guys like that, I take that as a big accomplishment because, God, they're not easy to beat."
Kanaan, who used a bold move on a late restart to dart from fifth to first, couldn't hold off Franchitti and Dixon on the last restart. He was OK with the final result.
"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 for sure, and he was going to call me a wanker that I didn't win this thing.
"I'm glad this is over. I'm glad that now I hope we can all move on and just remember Dan the way Dan was — a happy guy, a wonderful friend."
Wheldon's wife, Susie, went to Victory Lane to congratulate Franchitti, who hid his tears of joy behind a pair of white sunglasses worn in tribute because they were Wheldon's preference. She then sat next to Franchitti's wife, actress Ashley Judd, in the backseat of the convertible — the same seat she had a year ago for Wheldon's win — for the victory lap around the 2.5-mile oval.