INDIANAPOLIS, IN – If Tony Stewart says it was the “best Indy 500” he has ever seen, it must have been. The 5-wide flying start was exciting. A record 34 lead changes among 10-drivers was obviously exciting. And some of the most exciting open wheel restarts were certainly exciting. But the most exciting was seeing Dario Franchitti claw his way up from last place following a broken nosewing, to winning his third Indy 500 championship while Takuma Sato put it in the wall on the last lap.
Dario, and teammate Scott Dixon started in 16th and 15th position. The Dallara chassis powered with newly developed 6-cylinder, single-turbo Honda engines were not expected to do well in the 500. Practice and qualifying was dominated by the Chevrolet powered cars of Team Penske and Andretti. In fact, Chevrolet held 8 of the top 9 starting positions. Honda worked very hard with the teams during the 30 days in May, and it showed. A last minute update for the 2.2 liter engines provided for a very competitive race. Dario quipped "It was wild, it was intense, it was hot and it was fun.’’
The mediocre starting position for the Scot-born driver was not the only difficulty facing Franchitti. On lap 14, he was hit from behind by E.J.Viso during a pit stop requiring a complete replacement of the cars nosewing placing him in 29th position – near the back of the pack. By lap 150, it was pretty evident that the Hondas of Franchitti and Dixon were formidable. The teammates were running in front leading 41 of the final 50 laps. “Credit to Dario," he said. "He had a bad start to the day and came through the field. It’s a 1-2 finish for Target on their 50th anniversary. You couldn’t have it a better way. I just wish the No. 9 was first. He drove a hell of a race and definitely deserved it. Real happy for Honda. What a way to win their first race of the year. They can forget about the other four. To come out and win Indy in their first attempt against Chevy is pretty cool.”
Another interesting story at the 500 was Ruben Barrichello’s first race on the oval at Indy. Rubens, a past winner at Indianapolis, though on the Formula One road course in 2002, drove a respectable race with an 11th place finish. He was the highest placed rookie. “It was a great achievement today," said the 19-year F1 veteran. "The first oval experience; it was very different than anything I've done. We carried too much downforce all the way. That kept me safe. It kept me racy. I mean, I could race sometimes, but it was very hard to follow people and to keep it running fast. You could see that people were in a much lower level of down force that were in front of us. I'm still very proud of what the team has achieved. It's a pity that we didn't finish top 10, just outside. But I can be proud of that for my first time out."
This was also the first Indy 500 race since the death of 2010-winner Dan Wheldon in a fiery crash at the Las Vegas race last year. In honor of Weldon, Bryan Herta drove a single parade lap around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the car Wheldon won with last year. The driver's widow, Susie Wheldon (pictured below) watched the race with Emma Dixon, Scott Dixon's wife. Also, laps 26 and 98, which marked the numbers of both cars that Wheldon drove to his pair of Indy 500 wins, were raced in his honor. "I just want to dedicate this to two of Indianapolis' finest, Dan Wheldon and Michael Wanser," said Franchitti, honoring the fallen 2011 Indy 500 winner and the son of his team manager, Barry Wanser. "Thanks to all of the Indianapolis fans for their tribute to Dan today. What a race. I think D-dub (Dan Wheldon) would be proud of that one."
TOPEKA, KANSAS – It was a great day for Jack Beckman as he claimed his first Funny Car Wally of the season at the Fram . Up against teammate Ron Capps in the final round, Jack’s 4.158 sec, 303.09 mph blast bettered Ron’s 4.107 sec, 304.39 mph by his near-perfect 0.004 sec reaction time. The Schumacher teammates switched cars, crews and trailers following the Vegas race and this is the first time that Beckman has been able to make it happen. “It’s a big win for us,” Beckman said. “We’re right back in the hunt... That was my 13th win, and I try to appreciate every win because you never know when it can be your last.” He continued, “They [the NAPA team] were clearly outrunning us. When we saw them run 4.12 in the semi's, we knew we couldn’t run that without stepping too far that the risk of smoking the tires was too great. Our strategy was to put a 4.15 in it and hope something happened with their car. I think I dodged a bullet on the starting line. I had a hiccup in staging in the final round that could have bit us. The irony is that I don’t know if we could’ve won any other way.”
In Top Fuel, David Grubnic ended up top dog beating out Spencer Massey in the finals. Grubnic ran a 3.893 sec, 319.07 mph against Massey’s 3.910 sec, 309.98 mph run. This is the Australian-native’s first win since 2006. “My whole career has been ups and downs, but you have to go through these troughs to appreciate the peaks,” Grubnic said. “Today is one of those peaks. My first win came here in 2005, and it’s great to do it here again. Why we have success here in particular is beyond me, but we’ll take it where we can get it.
It was a surprise in Pro Stock with Allen Johnson beating the Summit boys. Allen Johnson ran strong all-weekend and was paired with Greg Anderson in the final round. Allen ran a respectable 6.587 sec, 210.54 mph run. Though running in the quicker left-lane, Anderson experienced a bit of tire-shake and only managed a 6.696 sec, 210.21 mph run. “The whole crew for the Mopar Dodge Avenger was just so strong and so consistent all weekend,” said Johnson, “today our mission was to be consistent and maintain lane choice. We did that until the final round, and it just so happened that in the final the right lane turned out to be better than the left, and Greg shook the tires a little bit. So it worked right into the palm of our hands. We’ve been after them [the Summit cars] for the last few races and finally got the win and gave them a run for the money. This Pro Stock battle for the rest of the year will be a knock-down drag out.”
MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA – It could not have been a better day to run the third round of American Le Mans series at Laguna Seca. The Muscle Milk HPD or Graf/Luhrs easily claimed P1 and the overall wins with a 3-lap lead over P2 winning Level 5 HDP of Tucker/Diaz/Montagny. Third place went to the PC-class ORECA entry of Bennett/Braun. The GT-class Corvettes of Oliver/Milner and Magnussen/Garcia claimed a 1-2 finish in exciting, nail-biting competition.
P1 was essentially an uncontested class with the second place prototype finishing over 20-laps back. P2 was a bit more exciting, though hard to keep track of drivers. The pole-sitting No. 55 Level 5 of Montagny led the first 3-hours until colliding with a GTC-class car, conceding the lead to the No. 95 Level 5 HPD piloted at the time by Scott Tucker. Montagny was able to complete the final 90-minute stint in the No. 95 entry achieving a top-of-the-podium finish for the Frenchman.
PC-class was quite an exciting show coming down to the last lap as the CORE Autosport ORECA of Braun/Bennett passed the RSR Racing’s entry of Junquera/Drissi/Gonzalez as they “picked” around a CTC car. The CORE entry of Popow/Kimber-Smith came in third with only 1.725 seconds separating the three PC cars.
The real show was in GT-class where the race could have been won by either of 7 cars. The two Corvettes, two BMWs, and three Porsche’s were within 2 seconds in the last hour of the race. Oliver Gavin took the lead with an hour to go as he passed the Team Falken Porsche of Wolf Henzler. But then Bill Auberlen gave Gavin a run for the money in the BMW but was unable to pass the faster Corvette. With 15 minutes to go, the Corvette of Magnussen/Garcia went around the BMW giving the Michigan team a 1-2 finish, and their 2nd consecutive ALMS win.
The GT Challenge race was won by the TRG entry of Bleekemolen/DiGuida with the Sofronas/Welch/Villenuve GMG RSR coming in second. Bob Faieta of Competition Motorsports managed a third place finish with co-drivers Cort Wagner and Michael Avenatti.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - The Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway saw Ron Capps end John Force Racing’s season Funny Car long winning streak. Running consistent 4.16 second runs all weekend, Capps went up against Force’s Robert Hight in the finals. Capps 4.166 s, 303.91 mph run was more than enough to beat Hight’s 4.399 s, 273.44 mph attempt at a win. “I got so tired of hearing about Force [Racing] winning every race,” said Capps, “ I love him, but I got tired of hearing about him on this race streak.”
In Top Fuel, Steve Torrence won his first career victory. Torrence went up against the formidable, seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher who has never won a race at Atlanta. Torrence, the number two qualifier, ran a 3.893 s, 320.66 mph blast taking out the US Army dragster aborted run of 4.913 s, 169.44. Schumacher had to get out of it after losing traction at the start. Torrence said of his first win “I’ve been practicing, and the seat time of just making passes in a good car has really helped me a lot. Getting this first win, it’s unbelievable. To do it here at Atlanta is awesome. This is a great racetrack. It just hasn’t caught up to me yet. Hopefully, this is the start of a lot of really good things.”
In Pro Stock, the Ken Black crew really made a statement by placing all three Summit cars in the semi-finals. In the end, Greg Anderson took on teammate and friend Jason Line with 6.649s, 208.26 mph run in his Summit Racing Pontiac to hold off the quicker, but losing, Summit Racing Pontiac of Line, which finished in 6.618 at 209.62. Anderson won it at the start line with an impressive 0.039 s reaction time compared with Line’s 0.081 s time. “It’s great to have three Summit cars in the semi's, quipped Anderson. “That doesn’t happen too often with multicar teams. It just tells you that everybody is rowing the boat in the same direction and pulling their load. That’s what I’m the most proud of — assembling this team and instilling in them that it doesn’t matter which driver wins. Anderson also made a moving comment about his team owner’s battle with cancer, “It all goes back to what Ken Black does for this team. We just want to dig harder and harder every day because that’s what he is doing, going to rehab, and trying to get back to walking, and he’s darn close. When you see that, you don’t want to let the man down. You want to make him proud. And when he gets back to the racetrack full time, we want our cars to be running at their best.”
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Eddie Krawiec, outran first-time finalist Michael Ray. The Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson of Krawiec ran a 6.905s, 195.53mph to beat the GottSpeed Racing Buell of Ray, which finished in 7.036s, 187.94 mph. “We are just trying to get a handle on the motorcycle and working on getting it to leave well, and I think we did that this weekend,” Krawiec said. “It ran awesome, and I’ve got a killer motorcycle right now.”
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – The SPRINT Cup race at Richmond last Saturday was full of surprises. Qualifying was uneventful with Mark Martin edging out Carl Edwards for his second pole of the season. The race was a different story. Edwards, Johnson and Stewart all looked impressive for much of the race, with Edwards looking to have the edge leading more than 200 laps. But with 82 laps to go, the surprises began. Following a caution, the leader board showed Edwards to be in first place. Edwards also claimed that NASCAR had informed his spotter that he was the leader, and restarted as the leader. Tony Stewart however was officially deemed the actual leader, so Edwards was black flagged and penalized with a stop-an-go, eliminating him from contention. “Right before that start my spotter Jason Hedlesky was told by the NASCAR officials ‘the 99 is the leader,’” Edwards said. “Jason told me, I had a split second to decide what I was going to do, and I thought NASCAR made a mistake and lined us up wrong. I was at a disadvantage being on the outside so I thought ‘I’m getting the best start I can get right now.’ I got the best start I could get and it looked like Tony either waited or spun his tires so they black flagged me. He continued, “I still don’t understand why they black flagged me. They said we were the leader so I restarted the best I could, given the disadvantaged position I was in...”
It appeared to be Stewart’s race to win at this point, until a caution for debris with 14 laps to go stops the action. During the ensuing pit stop, Stewart took too long of a stop giving Kyle Busch an opening that he took. With Busch in front on the restart, Stewart was also passed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Stewart later commented that there was no need for the final caution as it appeared that there was only a plastic water bottle on the track, hardly a hazard to the racers. All-in-all, a third place finish by Stewart was impressive since he had several mishaps during the race, but he wasn’t too happy, “Well, when the caution is for a plastic (water) bottle on the backstretch, it’s hard to feel good about losing that one, I mean. And we gave it away on pit road. So we did everything we could to throw it away; it got taken away from us. That’s the best car I’ve had a Richmond in a long time. So I’m really proud of that and (crew chief) Steve Addington and I’m proud of our guys. But we’ve got some work to do on pit stops right now. I don’t know what their malfunction was but I’m pretty ticked off about it tonight.”
On the other hand, Richmond has been good to Busch, “I’m not sure exactly what it is about Richmond that fits my style. When I first went there in the Trucks I was terrible and then they repaved the place. I went there in a Nationwide car with Hendrick Motorsports and pulled off a win right away. It’s been a good track for me ever since then with both the Nationwide and the Cup Series and I have just taken a liking to it. You have to be so technical there. The speeds are really high, but yet it’s a short track. You really have to be on top of your game to be sure that the car stays under you.”
There was also some action at the RCR pits stemming from a pit stop incidence after which RCR crew-member Erik Pringle was reprimeanded by Crew Chief Slugger Labbe. “After the pit stop, our front tire carrier went over to the 48 pit stall and pushed another crew member over the wall from the 48 team, and I don’t condone that. He was mad because when he was jumping over the wall to carry tires, the 48’s right rear tire landed in our pit box and he landed on top of it. He fell down and our right front tire went rolling across pit road. So that’s whatever everyone saw.” Labbe, lives by a code he’s learned during his 25-year tenure in racing: “Never leave your pit box, never go in anyone else’s pit box and let the crew chief fight your battles.”