Mistakes prove too costly for big guns to overcome

IndyCar commentary — By on June 1, 2010 7:15 pm

(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

The 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 has come and gone, and like the other 93 races before it, this rendition was full of twists, turns, surprises, and action throughout the race. When the big money was on the line, the cream once again rose to the top, but it certainly was not without a dominating performance, miscues by the other competitors, and a healthy dose of luck at the end. When the dust settled, the winner was the survivor, the team that did not make a fatal error during the race.

Dario Franchitti had one of the most dominant runs at Indianapolis in recent memory. From the drop of the initial green flag, Franchitti’s #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda was clearly the best car on track, and he seemed to be able to drive away from the field at will. However, even after leading 146 of the first 162 laps, the outcome of the race wasn’t certain until Dario crossed the Yard of Bricks for the final time and saw the twin checked flags waving above him.

The crazy finish to the race was set up by the lap 161 crash by rookie Sebastian Saavedra. When the pits opened two laps later, the leaders all pitted for what was likely meant to be their final stops of the race. However, stretching the fuel run for 37 laps was going to be a difficult chore, especially at the race speeds that Dario had been maintaining all day long. It would take a handful of caution laps to ensure the leaders could make it to lap 200 without pitting again. When the green flag came out again on lap 166 and the next 33 laps were run at full race speed, it appeared that Dario’s dominant day might be all for naught. One by one, the leading group of drivers was forced to pit lane inside the final 10 laps for a splash of fuel. The crowd was most disappointed on lap 195 when Tony Kanaan peeled off, dashing his hopes of a historic victory from his last-place starting spot. Ultimately, the final battle was between Dario Franchitti, running on fumes, and Panther Racing’s Dan Wheldon, driving the #4 National Guard sponsored car.

As the final laps ticked away, Dario’s laps continued to slow. His speeds for laps 198 and 199 were only 202.8 and 195.6 mph, respectively, and at least four cars unlapped themselves as Franchitti took the white flag. Would Franchitti have had enough fuel to finish the race? Car owner Chip Ganassi says, “Yes.” History says it doesn’t matter. In the end, it was a moot point as the caution flag flew shortly into lap 200 for the savage accident involving Mike Conway, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Ana Beatriz. Some will claim in the end that Dario was lucky to win this Indianapolis 500, but in reality, he was in a class of his own all day long and is a completely deserving champion. Besides, every driver that has ever won the Indianapolis 500 will admit to having luck on their side. Of course, those that have luck at the end are remembered more, but luck always plays a part. Few people seem to discount either of Al Unser Jr.’s two Indianapolis 500 for being lucky, nor do they consider A.J. Foyt’s victories in 1967 or 1977 lucky. Dario Franchitti is the champion of the 2010 Indianapolis 500, lucky or not.

Perhaps more important than Dario’s luck in winning the Great Race was the number of mistakes made by those believed to be his greatest competitors. Like the race in 2009, the 2010 Indianapolis 500 was won by the team and driver that did not make any grave mistakes during the race. In an astonishing series of events, all three Team Penske drivers made crucial errors that cost them a chance to compete for victory. The first mistake was made by Will Power, who left his pit box while the fuel hose was still attached. Amazingly, his team, in a blatant disregard for the safety of the other drivers on track, let Will continue to run at full race speed with the hose spring dangling from his car until a yellow flag came out several laps later. Even with his drive-through penalty many laps later, Will was able to stay on the lead lap but would never recover to compete for the win again.

Next on the miscue list was Helio Castroneves, who stalled his car in the pits on lap 144, dropping him from 3rd to 16th and ending any chance for his record-tying fourth Indianapolis victory. Most surprising of the Team Penske blunders was Ryan Briscoe, who crashed on cold tires into the turn 4 wall on lap 147, just one lap removed from a pit stop. These mistakes on the part of all three Team Penske drivers cost the teams dearly and will not go unnoticed by the Captain in the week between Indianapolis and Texas.

Even with the three Team Penske cars removing themselves from competition, Franchitti still had to beat stablemate Scott Dixon, driving the #9 car for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon and his crew handed Franchitti victory on a golden platter when the team waved Dixon out of his pit box before the right rear wheel was secured on his lap 67 pit stop. This un-Ganassi-like move dropped Dixon from 6th to 23rd, and Scott was never able to recover, managing only to salvage an otherwise uneventful 5th place finish.

In this era of spec-car racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it has become even more critical for drivers and teams to execute the 500 miles precisely and without error. This year was the perfect example. Yes, the engines and chassis are more reliable than they have ever been, but pushing man and machine to the limit lap after lap takes a toll on drivers and crews alike. To win at Indianapolis, every facet of a team’s race must be executed perfectly. In 2010, only one team among the Big Five managed to do that. That team will enjoy the spoils of victory until the 95th running commences next year. The others are simply left to ponder, “What if?”

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