And if it wasn't going to be Franchitti, then it would be Scott Dixon. Maybe even Tony Kanaan.
No matter what, one of Wheldon's best buddies was going to Victory Lane.
In the end, they celebrated a 1-2-3 sweep that honoured D-Dub, their missing friend.
Franchitti stamped his name in the record books by winning his third Indy 500 on Sunday, a day that started and ended as a tribute to Wheldon, who won the race a year ago but was killed in an October crash in the IndyCar season finale. As his three friends lined up with six laps remaining for the final restart — Kanaan out front, Chip Ganassi teammates Franchitti and Dixon second and third — they couldn't help but wonder if Wheldon was at play.
"Kind of like old times, the three of us back and forwards," Franchitti said. "I thought, 'Dan is laughing at us right now going at it.'"
It was an absolutely fitting finish, even if the elation for Franchitti's win was tempered by the heartbreak for two other deserving drivers. Dixon, a one-time Indy 500 winner, temporarily relocated his family to St. Petersburg, Fla., to support Wheldon's wife and two sons, and Kanaan, 0 for 11 now at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had openly wept following the death of his former teammate.
"I think a lot of us that were close to Dan, you know, you wanted it that little bit more," Dixon said. "I guess maybe in the back of your mind, you figured he would probably help you out today, too. I think in that situation, seeing how it lined up with the top three, three of Dan's friends, it was a tough one."
Franchitti won a wheel-to-wheel, last-lap battle, sailing away to the checkered flag when Takuma Sato spun out trying to make one last pass on the inside and slammed into the wall.
The race had shaped into what was expected to be a duel to the finish between Franchitti and Dixon. But when the Scot made his final pass of Dixon with two laps to go, he pulled Sato with him and it sapped Dixon's momentum.
So the last-lap pass attempt was Sato's for the taking, and he couldn't pull it off as he hugged the inside white line through Turn 1. His wheels appeared to touch Franchitti's, he spun hard into the wall, and Franchitti sailed past for the win — this one, just like the first two, under caution.
Dixon crossed the finish line in second, and Kanaan was third.
"Everybody up there was a friend of Dan's, and that about sums it up. Everybody loved him," Franchitti said as bagpipes played over the public address system.
"What a race! What a race!" Franchitti said. "I think D-Dub would be proud of that one."
James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., started second and finished sixth in his second career Indy 500. Alex Tagliani of Lachenaie, Que., meanwhile finished 13th.
Dixon met his teammate in Victory Lane, and Franchitti was reminded of the delicate balance in celebrating a team win vs. beating a teammate.
"I want to beat Scott. I know he wants to beat me. I don't think I've met maybe a more competitive individual, except maybe Dan in the early years," Franchitti said. "He's my buddy. Out on the track, he's competition, but a teammate, and then afterward he's my friend. I see the disappointment in his face. I see the disappointment in T.K.'s face.
"I think both those guys will get more championships and Indy wins. They're just too good not to. When you beat guys like that, I take that as a big accomplishment because, God, they're not easy to beat."
Kanaan, who used a bold move on a late restart to dart from fifth to first, couldn't hold off Franchitti and Dixon on the last restart. He was OK with the final result.
"I don't think it could have been a better result for Dan," 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.
"I'm glad this is over. I'm glad that now I hope we can all move on and just remember Dan the way Dan was — a happy guy, a wonderful friend."
Wheldon's wife, Susie, went to Victory Lane to congratulate Franchitti, who hid his tears of joy behind a pair of white sunglasses worn in tribute because they were Wheldon's preference. She then sat next to Franchitti's wife, actress Ashley Judd, in the backseat of the convertible — the same seat she had a year ago for Wheldon's win — for the victory lap around the 2.5-mile oval.
The day opened with car owner Bryan Herta driving a single parade lap around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the car Wheldon drove to victory last year. Fans were given white sunglasses to wear on laps 26 and 98, marking the car numbers Wheldon used in his two wins.
It was Susie Wheldon's first trip to any race track since her husband's death, and she watched from Dixon's pit stand with his wife, Emma.
So it was apt on this hot day — the temperature hit 32 degrees Celsius, just shy of the Indy 500 record from 1937 — that one of the most competitive races in history ended with a frantic push from Wheldon's friends. Ten drivers swapped the lead 35 times, shattering the record of 29 in the 1960 race won by Jim Rathmann.
Until the last lap, when Sato made his move for the win, the race was close but uneventful.
The only multi-car accident came when a spin by Mike Conway collected Will Power, who came to Indy as the series points leader and winner of the last three races this season. It was a somewhat frightening accident as Conway, who broke his front wing when he hit one of his crew members on pit road, hit the outside wall and his car tilted on its side before coming to rest. And Helio Castroneves had to deftly manoeuvre past a bouncing tire that still grazed one of his own wheels.
Besides that, though, the race was slowed by just seven other cautions — including the one on the last lap — for 39 of the 200 laps.
Marco Andretti, who went into Sunday believing the race "is mine to lose," was strong at the start, but a series of adjustments were not to his liking and he unravelled on his team radio before spinning to bring out the final caution with 13 laps remaining.
Franchitti and Dixon battled back and forth in the final third of the race, with Sato consistently in the mix. Then came Kanaan, from nowhere it seemed, but he was unable to hang on to the lead on the restart after Andretti's crash brought out the yellow with 13 laps to go.
Andretti said the wreck "definitely rang my bell."
Everyone thought the race would go to a Chevrolet driver for either Andretti Autosport or Penske Racing, which won the first four races of the season and swept the front two rows in qualifying. But in the end, it was three Hondas fighting for their first win of the season.
After the last restart, Franchitti pulled past Dixon for the final time, then went for the lead, pulling even with Franchitti. "Job done," he said he thought, but he went in too low and the tires appeared to touch.
"It looks like he didn't give me enough room to go there," Sato said. "I was a little below the white line. I had nowhere to go."
Sato said the cars never actually hit but the white line marking the inside of the track "was less than touching my own car — so, you know, I mean almost on the grass."
Franchitti coasted across the line under a yellow caution flag to become the 10th driver to win at least three Indy 500s.
This was the second year in a row that a crash on the final lap affected the outcome. In 2011, rookie JR Hildebrand was leading going into the final turn when his car slammed into the wall, allowing Wheldon to cruise past and take the checkered flag.
"I was side by side with Takuma," Franchitti said. "We hit and I managed to keep it out of trouble."
The victory snaps a disappointing start to the season for Franchitti, who has won the last three championships but seemed stumped by IndyCar's new car through the first four races. In breaking out Sunday for his 31st victory, he's now in a tie with Sebastien Bourdais and Paul Tracy on the all-time wins list.
One more win will move Franchitti into seventh place in the record books. The only drivers ahead of him? The giants of open-wheel racing: three Unsers, two Andrettis and A.J. Foyt, the all-time wins leader.Suggest a correction