By Dave Kallmann, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
INDIANAPOLIS — Dan Wheldon would have been back in victory lane. You can bet on that.
He’d have laughed, maybe wept, and patted his buddy on the back. He’d have called Dario Franchitti “old man.” And through it all his mind would have churned, searching for the next opportunity to prank him.
Brit Wheldon would have loved being a part of an Indianapolis 500 victory as wild as his own a year earlier and then joining in a celebration every bit as heartfelt.
“Racing is emotion,” Franchitti said. “Life is, as well. But racing I think really exemplifies that.
“And Vegas was the lowest of the low.”
That’s where Wheldon died, Las Vegas, from injuries suffered in a racing crash in what was to have been the 2011 IndyCar season finale, five months after his second Indy win.
“I think the reason we all got back in the cars, the reason all the mechanics got back in pit lane, the fans came back to the races, is days like today, the emotion of something like today,” Franchitti said. “That’s certainly why I got back in the car.
“There’s not a feeling like standing in victory lane there. There isn’t.”
So although Wheldon couldn’t be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his presence was felt by nearly a quarter-million sweat-soaked fans and the newest three-time winner.
Franchitti saluted his friend first by sliding on a pair of white sunglasses — one of the fashion-forward Wheldon’s trademarks — and pouring most of the traditional jug of milk over his head — as Wheldon had done a year earlier.
The 39-year-old Scotsman became the 10th member of a group of drivers who have won at least three 500s. Only Indy legends A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears have four.
“I don’t know,” said Franchitti, an astute student of racing history who also has earned four series titles. “I’m very proud of the achievements, whether it’s Indy wins, championships, every one of the race wins.
“Sometimes I look back, but generally I’m trying to look forward. When I retire, that’s the time to look back.”
All three of Franchitti’s Indy victories have come under the caution flag, 2007 because of rain and ‘10 and ‘12 because of last-lap crashes.
The 2010 wreck occurred behind Franchitti, this one alongside. When Takuma Sato made a huge run into Turn 1, he couldn’t hang on. The rear snapped around, touched the side of Franchitti’s car lightly and then slammed into the wall.
“Last lap of the Indianapolis 500,” Franchitti said. “I wouldn’t expect him to lift (off the accelerator) at that point.”
In a 500 with a record 35 lead changes, Franchitti sat out front for 23 laps. That includes the final two, after he and Sato slipped past Scott Dixon on the front stretch.
Dixon, Franchitti’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate and 2008 winner, finished second for the second time. Tony Kanaan, a former teammate of Franchitti’s and Wheldon’s, was third.
“Dan, his three best friends in the top three, I don’t think it could have been any better,” 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.”
One more Wheldon connection: This was the first 500 for the new Dallara DW12 car, which had been developed by Wheldon and then named in his honor after he died.
Franchitti had to go a long way to complete 500 miles. He and Dixon had been slow in qualifying eight days earlier, leaving Franchitti 16th on the grid.
“What happened is it’s a blessing in the way we qualified so miserably,” team managing director Mike Hull said. “It makes you work really, really hard on your race car.”
An accident on Franchitti’s first pit stop 15 laps into the race made for even more work.
E.J. Viso hit Franchitti from behind, spinning him into the pit wall. His crew replaced the entire nose of the car, and Franchitti restarted 29th.
“When it comes to a day like today and we were last after the first pit stop, there was never one word about that,” Ganassi said. “Came in, changed the front wing. . . . Before you know it, he was 23rd, next thing he was 16th, next thing he was 10th.
“That’s the kind of guy you want in your car.”
Oriol Servia came from 27th to finish fourth. Pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe ended up fifth.
The race appeared headed for a fuel-conservation contest, as a yellow flag for rookie Josef Newgarden’s stall brought all the leaders to the pits with 34 laps to go.
Dixon and Franchitti swapped the lead back and forth, drafting off each other, trying to save enough to stretch that tankful enough. The pair had controlled the 2011 race before having to slow down at the end to avoid another stop.
With 19 to go, though, Ed Carpenter’s spin brought out a caution that permitted enough saving that everyone could battle to the finish.
“It turned out to be what I thought was a great race,” Ganassi said. “At the end it was as fast as anybody could go, I can assure you.”
A recent addition to the victory celebration — along with the milk and the wreath and trophy queen’s kiss — is that the winning driver and a small entourage ride around the track in the back of a pace car.
Susie Wheldon, Dan’s widow, went along Sunday.
“I tell you what, she’s a stronger person than I am to come here,” Franchitti said. “She knows better than anybody how much Dan loved Indy and how much Indy loved Dan.
“My favorite memory of the race last year was Dan was going out on his parade lap afterward. I had this crazy notion in my head I was going to carjack him.
“I see his face. He was just sobbing. It meant so much to him. . . . I couldn’t do it. I just gave him a big hug and told him how proud I was of him.”
No doubt Wheldon would have done precisely the same.