Dario Franchitti has won Champ Car races on his favorite road circuit (Road America), on an airport (Burke Lakefront) and on street circuits from Montreal to Surfers Paradise. But never in his 109 previous Champ Car starts had he won on an oval. He’d come as close as 0.243sec at the 2001 Michigan 500 and a botched pit stop at Chicago Motor Speedway in June, but he’d never quite managed to push the nose of his KOOL machine across the finish line first after a day of left hand turns.
Until today. Fittingly, Franchitti’s first oval track win came 300 miles south of his hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland; more fitting still was the fact that the post-race celebrations were conducted to a live rendition of “Scotland the Brave” provided by a kilted-bag piper. Most fitting of all, the Team KOOL Green pit crew whose imperfect work had cost Franchitti earlier in the year, delivered to put him in position to score his first oval win.
After stalling a couple of times in the pits, switching to an out of sequence pit stop strategy and getting a timely full course yellow, Franchitti entered pit lane on lap 172 in seventh place behind Kenny Brack and Cristiano da Matta. Stationary for just 8.5sec, he roared back down pit lane in the lead and never looked back.
“It all came down to the last stop,” said Franchitti. “I’ve been giving the guys a pretty hard time this year because of some of the things that’ve happened, and if ever we needed a good stop this was it. And it was a peach.”
If Franchitti’s stop was peach, Brack’s was a turd. Thanks to a twice-fumbled wheel nut, the Swede plummeted from first place all the way to ninth as car after car did what they could not do on the race track in the space of a second - whiz past the stationary Target Toyota Lola.
Until that moment, Brack owned the second annual Rockingham 500. The man who led 56 of 140 laps of last year’s shortened race only for Gil de Ferran to pass him on the final turn of the final lap, utterly dominated proceedings today. From pole position he jumped into a lead he would hold for 144 of the first 172 laps, yielding the point only briefly to Franchitti and an impressive Darren Manning whose teams adopted gambling pit stop strategies in an attempt to get to the front. Mario Dominguez was also credited with leading a lap but it cost him - big time - for he was ruled to have exceeded the pit stop window of laps and was assessed a drive-through penalty as a result. He would not be the only driver penalized for pit lane infractions, real or imagined.
Michael Andretti initially gave chase, then slipped to third behind the flying Tora Takagi on the first round of pit stops and, later, fell out of the reckoning altogether when he was deemed to have exceeded the 85 mph pit lane speed limit on his second stop. Da Matta ran a quietly efficient race in the top three or four, looking for victory to be sure but with the need to protect his points lead paramount on the agenda, while Patrick Carpentier tigered his way into the top five after going to a high(er) downforce package for the race in the hopes of making ground on the starts and restarts after qualifying 10th. It worked, up to a point.
“It was good on the start and on restarts,” said Carpentier, “but when I was running by myself the other guys were able to close up (because) I was slow on the straights.”
Carpentier’s teammate Alex Tagliani was not so fortunate, retiring with electrical problems after 42 laps, joining fellow Canadian Paul Tracy in civies early after the KOOL Honda/Lola suffered a broken gearbox. Christian Fittipaldi was destined to drop out as well, calling it a day on lap 44 after a couple of lengthy pit stops to change the electrics on his Toyota/Lola.
The first round of scheduled pit stops came during a full course yellow for debris a few laps later. It was then that Franchitti experienced the first of a couple set backs on the day when he stalled exiting pit lane, dropping from fifth to 16th in the process. At the tail end of the lead lap, he had nothing to lose by stopping again a few laps later to top-off his fuel -o nly to stall again.
“On the first stop, I was on the rev limiter and it just stalled,” he said. “I’d been having trouble getting the traction control adjusted properly to allow me to spin the rear wheels, so I thought it was the traction control, but it turned out to be the clutch.
“(Team manager) Kyle Moyer then put me out of sequence on the next pit stops and I was able to run on a clear track. I put my head down and went as fast as I wanted, it was like running qualifying laps, rather than having my lap speed dictated by the pace of the cars in front of me.”
Thus, Brack lead until stopping a second time on lap 94, handing the lead to Franchitti and Manning (whose team had also opted to go out of sequence with the leaders). Indeed, Manning lead a couple of laps when Franchitti stopped on lap 110, then the rightful order was re-established when the St. George Racing Ford-Lola pitted on lap 114, leaving Brack ahead of da Matta. However, Franchitti’s blazing, traffic-free speed had enabled him to move all the way back to third ahead of Carpentier.
And so the race unwound, with Brack leading the balance of the laps, yielding to Franchitti and Manning for a few tours, then resuming his place at the head of the field after the pit stop shuffle had sorted itself out. Crucially, however, Franchitti went a few laps further before making his penultimate stop on lap 144.
So, when everyone headed for the pits for their final and decisive stops after Tony Kanaan tattooed the Turn Two wall on lap 167, Franchitti had a few laps more worth of methanol on board than Brack, da Matta and Takagi. The split second difference it took for him to take on enough fuel to make it to the finish, coupled with a lightning-quick change of tires, got Franchitti down pit lane just ahead of da Matta.
Carpentier bolted all the way from sixth to third while Oriol Servia, who had been running in fuel conservation mode much of the day, took on a short fuel load and moved to fourth ahead of Bruno Junqueira while Takagi slipped to sixth.
That was small change compared to Brack, of course, who fell all the way to ninth when the left-rear wheel man dropped the wheel nut - twice - putting paid to the Swede’s bid to score his first win in a year. The classy Brack took it in stride.
“We had a good grip on the race, but that’s history now,” he said. “I guess the tire changer dropped a wheel nut, then I put the car in gear just as he put the nut back on, the wheel turned a little and it fell off a second time.
“That’s the way it is these days in this series. If you have a problem in the pits, you’re done. If you’re a 10th of a second slower than the next guy you lose a position; if you’re half a second slower you lose five positions.
“That’s been the story of our year so far, but it’s particularly difficult when it happens when you’re leading. But we go through this together as a team. Normally the team gives me very fast stops, they really do. But sometimes there’s a glitch in the pits; sometimes there’s a glitch with the driving; sometimes there’s a glitch in the engineering. Nobody’s perfect.”
Not all the time, anyway, as Franchitti well knows. After all, he figured he blew a chance at winning pole yesterday when he took the wrong line into Turn One on his second lap. And never let it be said that he is not as hard on himself as he is on his teammates.
“I knew the car would be good,” he said. “Even though I made a bad job of it , we still managed to qualify fifth....
But when this race was on the line, the same bunch that had faltered in the Windy City, delivered.
“8.5 seconds,” said Franchitti with a smile. “I told the guys they paid me back for Chicago... and then some.”
Sure for Men Rockingham 500 results:
1) Dario Franchitti, No. 27 Team KOOL Green Honda/Lola, 211 laps, 210.309mph
2) Cristiano da Matta, No. 6 Havoline/Newman-Haas Toyota/Lola, 211, +0.986sec
3) Patrick Carpentier, No. 32 Player’s/Indeck Ford/Reynard, 211, +2.785
4) Oriol Servia, No. 20 Visteon/Patrick Racing Toyota/Reynard, 211, +3.757
5) Bruno Junqueira, No. 4 Target/Ganassi Toyota/Lola, 211, +4.281
6) Tora Takagi, No. 5 Pioneer/Denso Walker Racing Toyota/Reynard, 211, +4.778
7) Jimmy Vasser, No. 8 Shell/Team Rahal Ford/Lola, 211, +5.132
8) Kenny Brack, No. 12 Target/Ganassi Toyota/Lola, 211, +13.912
9) Darren Manning, No. 19 RAC/Team St George Ford/Lola, 211, +15.863
10) Michael Andretti, No. 39 Team Motorola Honda/Lola, 209
11) Michel Jourdain Jr., No. 9 Gigante/Team Rahal Ford/Lola, 209
12) Scott Dixon, No. 44 Target/Ganassi Toyota/Lola, 209
13) Mario Dominguez, No. 55 Herdez Competition Ford/Lola, 209
14) Adrian Fernandez, No. 51 Tecate/Telmex Honda/Lola, 186, disqualified
15) Tony Kanaan, No. 10 WorldCom/Mo Nunn Racing Honda/Lola, 167, accident
16) Shinji Nakano, No. 52 Alpine/Mitsubishi Honda/Lola, 61, accident
17) Christian Fittipaldi, No. 11 Eli Lilly Newman-Haas Toyota/Lola, 44, engine
18) Alex Tagliani, No. 33 Player’s/Indeck Ford/Reynard, 42, electrical
19) Paul Tracy, No. 26 Team KOOL Green Honda/Lola, 12, gearbox