Looking For Two In A Row
July 28, 2004 | 12:28 A.M. EST
It probably took him a little longer than he planned, but the popular Scotsman put an exclamation point on his comeback by capturing Sunday's Menards A.J. Foyt 225 on the Milwaukee Mile at Wisconsin State Fair Park.
Driving the ArcaEx Dallara-Honda for Andretti Green Racing, Franchitti scored his first victory in IRL competition with a .6590-second win over reigning Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice in the Pioneer/Argent Panoz G Force-Honda. Two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. had one of his better races since winning the 2004 season opener at Homestead to wind up third in the Marlboro Dallara-Toyota. Series leader Tony Kanaan was fourth in the 7-Eleven Dallara-Honda and rising star Vitor Meira was fifth in the Centrix Panoz G Force-Honda.
Franchitti's victory gives him some momentum as the IRL prepares to tackle the high banks of Michigan International Speedway for this coming Sunday's Michigan Indy 400. MIS is a track where Franchitti has excelled in the past. In his last three appearances there, he finished fifth, third and second. Sunday's race will mark the first time he has run at MIS since 2001 when he finished a photo-finish second behind Patrick Carpentier in the Michigan 500.
"I'm looking forward to Michigan," said Franchitti. "In the past, any race I've been involved with there has been tremendous. It's a fun place to go racing. It will be a learning weekend, for sure. There will be a couple of things we have to learn on Friday. Hopefully, by the time qualifying and the race come about, we've got it all right. Thank God it's not a two day race weekend."
After accidents and mechanical problems sidelined him in the first few races of 2004, Franchitti won the pole at Texas and then finished second to Kanaan. That was the high point of his season. That is, until Sunday.
"Last year was difficult," Franchitti maintained. "I'm having a great time here, having a great time with these (Andretti Green Racing) guys. And I wanted to come back for that reason. I've still got a lot left to do. These guys stood by me. Hopefully, we'll be able to do some more of these and pay these guys back."
The key for Franchitti in his Milwaukee victory was passing Hornish for the lead on Lap 155 and staying there for the remainder of the race. Although Franchitti led a number of laps in the early part of the race, he lost the lead in the pits to Hornish during a caution on Lap 147. Hornish brought the field down for a restart on Lap 154 and Franchitti passed him in Turn 1 to take the lead for good.
"When we put new tires on, the car really came to life at that point, and I started moving through the field, passing Sam (Hornish) and those guys," Franchitti said during the post-race interview. "At that point, the car was working really, really well. I was able to get through traffic nicely.
"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 kept coming down, trying to squeeze me. I was able to accelerate hard on the inside, get past him and get a nice lead."
Franchitti led Hornish by nearly three seconds when Rice passed for second place on Lap 202. He was able to close on Franchitti, but never got close enough to attempt a pass.
"Finishing in the top three is always a good deal," said Rice, who started second and finished second at MIS in 2002. "Both Dario and I were struggling in (Turns) 1 and 2 and were real strong in (Turns) 3 and 4. It's just the way it goes. We needed it to stay green all the way through, and it would have been very good."
"I just didn't have enough for Dario, but Buddy and I were real close," said Hornish, runnerup to Alex Barron at MIS last year. "I just got a little loose once and got up into the gray trying to keep everything under control and he (Rice) got by me. That's part of racing."
The result allowed Rice to gain some ground on Kanaan, the 1999 Michigan 500 winner, in the point standings. With seven races to go, Kanaan holds a 357-293 lead over Rice. Dan Wheldon, who had been second in the standings prior to Milwaukee, dropped out with a broken half shaft on his Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara-Honda. He now has 276 points.
Helio Castroneves led for a time in the Marlboro Dallara-Honda and generally ran up front, but suffered from electrical problems and finished 12th. He remains fourth in the standings with 260 points while teammate Hornish remains fifth with 235. The victory vaulted Franchitti to sixth with 226 while Meira moved into a tie for seventh with reigning series champion Scott Dixon with 200 points each. Dixon was unable to start after suffering minor injuries in a pair of accidents over the weekend.
Franchitti's victory was the sixth for Andretti Green Racing in nine races. The win also gave Honda its eighth straight for the season.
After running short tracks for the past few weekends, IRL teams and drivers head to the Irish Hills of Michigan where they will run some of their fastest speeds of the season. Last year's pole speed, set by Tomas Scheckter, the winner of the 2002 race, was average of 222.458 mph.
Smaller engines and a new aero package indicate the drop in speed will be likely but slight. With the championship up for grabs and a number of close finishes, the Michigan Indy 400 should be its usual 200 laps of excitement-at speeds well over 200 mph.