INDIANAPOLIS —Tony Kanaan skidded out of control after a run-in with his teammate. Danica Patrick was clipped by another car just trying to get off pit road. With all those yellow flags, it was hard to get up to speed at the Indianapolis 500.
So when did Scott Dixon take the lead for the final time on his way to Victory Lane?
In the pits. During the last caution period, no less.
Speeding back to the track after the final round of stops, Dixon came out ahead of Vitor Meira—thanks a lot, crew—and pulled away over the final 29 laps to capture his first Indy 500 victory Sunday, holding off the Brazilian and hard-luck Marco Andretti.
The 27-year-old New Zealander started from the pole and stayed ahead of all the trouble, leading more laps than everyone else combined on a day when yellow was the predominant color, coming out eight times to slow up more than a third of the race.
“I didn’t know what it felt like, but it feels pretty bloody amazing,” Dixon said after taking a traditional sip of milk.
He stayed patient and focused even while making 69 of the 200 laps around the 2 1/2 -mile oval behind the pace car. Among those who weren’t around at the end: Kanaan, Patrick and 19-year-old Graham Rahal, the son of 1986 winner Bobby Rahal and last-place finisher in his first 500.
Dixon made the last pit stop trailing Meira, who had been out front for 12 laps after a daring move between Dixon and Ed Carpenter. But the red No. 9 car returned to the track with the lead.
“You just thought something was going to go wrong,” Dixon said. “There were so many yellows, it was really hard to get into a rhythm.”
Still savoring her landmark victory in Japan, Patrick failed to finish for the first time in four trips to Indy, though it wasn’t her fault. She was banged on pit road by Ryan Briscoe with 29 laps to go, breaking the left rear suspension on a car that had run in the top 10 most of the race but never challenged for the lead.
Patrick finished 22nd and was steaming afterward. After climbing out of her helpless car, she ripped off her gloves and stomped angrily toward Briscoe’s Team Penske pits. A track security official cut her off before she could get there.
“Probably best I didn’t get down there anyway,” Patrick said.
Even if she’d been running at the end, it’s highly unlikely Patrick would have caught Dixon. He clearly had the fastest car on the track, just as he had been throughout the month of May.
“It’s nice to see the fastest car win,” said Meira, who finished 1.75 seconds behind, driving for the one-car, low-budget Panther Racing team.
The Brazilian has never won an IndyCar race but finished runner-up in the biggest race of all for the second time in four years. Few remember that he was second to Dan Wheldon in 2005, the same year Patrick finished fourth—and got all the headlines—as an Indy rookie.
Andretti appeared to knock Kanaan, his Andretti Green Racing teammate, out of the race with an aggressive move just past the midway point, but all he got was another close call for a family that is now 1-for-57 at the Brickyard. The 21-year-old settled for third, while cousin John Andretti was 16th.
The Andretti Curse at Indy is alive and well. They can drive, for sure. They just can’t win.
Dixon led 115 of the 200 laps and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dan Wheldon was out front for 30 more, backing up the speed they had shown in practice and qualifications.
“I was worried going into the race just because we had such a smooth month,” Dixon said. “It was one of those things where you’re sort of waiting for something to go wrong.”
Maybe he was thinking back to a year ago. A sudden storm ended the race under yellow, and all Dixon could do was coast across the line behind winner Dario Franchitti.
No such worries this time.
“You’re clear now,” Dixon’s spotter screamed over the radio as he cleared the last group of lapped cars with two turns to go. “Bring it home! Bring it home!”
For a while, it looked as though an Andretti might finally break through to give the star-crossed family its first Indy victory since grandfather Mario won in 1969. Instead, it was the eighth time Marco, father Michael or Mario finished second or third.
Marco led twice for 15 laps, but the team co-owned by his father made a crucial miscalculation on its last pit stop. They adjusted the rear wing, looking for more speed, but the No. 26 car wound up falling back in the closing laps after posting the fastest run of the day, more than 224 mph, on lap 161.
“It was a team decision to do what we did,” Marco said. “OK, we missed. We messed up as a team. We finished third, got good points. Let’s move on.”
The race was marred by all sorts of crashes and miscues, but they were ordinary by Indy standards. No one was injured, and two wrecks actually happened on the track while the cars were running under the yellow. The biggest casualty was the winning speed, an average of 143.567 mph, better than 40 mph slower than the race record.
Kanaan was leading on lap 106 when Dixon surged past him right on the backstretch. Andretti dove to the inside, which appeared to catch his teammate off guard. Kanaan drifted high going into the third turn, scraped the outside wall and turned into the path of Sarah Fisher, one of three women in the 33-car field.
Neither was hurt, but both were done for the day.
Andretti apologized over the radio for his aggressive move. When told that his youthful teammate was sorry, Kanaan responded, “He’d better be. That was a very stupid move. Me being a good teammate, I didn’t want to turn into him and take out two cars. So I give up today.”
Kanaan has led 214 laps in his Indy career—running out front in every one of his seven trips to the Brickyard—but he’s never tasted milk in Victory Lane.
“Every time I lead, something happens,” said Kanaan, who finished 29th, the worst of his Indy career.
Of course, it’s easy to understand Andretti’s eagerness to get to the front at Indy considering his family history.
Mario spent the last quarter century of his career trying to win a second 500, only to be disappointed every time. Michael led more laps than any non-winner in the race’s 92-year history. Marco was a straightaway from winning as a rookie in 2006, only to get passed by Sam Hornish Jr.
So while Marco was sorry to see his teammate crashing out, he didn’t spend much time fretting about it.
“Stupid? I don’t know about stupid,” Andretti said. “Last minute, maybe. I had an awesome run on him. Maybe I dive-bombed him too late. I don’t know. I’ll have to look at the tape. If so, I completely apologize.”
Patrick, who became a national phenomenon when she led late in the race and finished fourth as a rookie in 2005, had hoped to follow her first IndyCar victory, at Japan last month, with a win in the biggest race of all.
But after starting fifth, she quickly fell back and got no higher than sixth the rest of the day, and complained incessantly about an ill-handling car while talking with her crew over the radio.
“I can’t do anything,” she screamed during one tirade. “I am sloooooow. I am damn slow.”
Any hopes of challenging at the end were ruined by Briscoe’s mistake in the pits. The Australian spun his tires trying to get out and slid sideways into Patrick’s blue-and-black car, which rolled helplessly to a stop, its day done with a broken suspension.
The excitement of having everyone in IndyCar running the same series was reflected in the packed grandstands surrounding the 2 1/2 -mile track. They were largely filled after years of declining attendance, the estimated 300,000 fans clearly pumped up about seeing all the top open-wheel stars racing under the same banner.
Also, after a month of rainy weather, there was no threat of showers when the green flag waved.
With 11 rookies—the most since 1997—and nine drivers from teams coming over from the defunct Champ Car series, which gave them little or no experience on ovals, there was plenty of cause for concern.
One of the neophytes, Graham Rahal, was the first to go out, after being thrown off line by a slowing car on lap 37 and slamming the wall coming out of the fourth turn. He wound up last, hardly the way he envisioned his first race at the track that has mean so much to his family.
“A learning experience,” said Bobby Rahal, whose own team finished sixth with Ryan Hunter-Reay behind the wheel.
But the newcomers largely stayed out of trouble. Oriol Servia was 11th, the highest finisher among the former Champ Car drivers, and two others, Will Power and Enrique Bernoldi, were among 15 drivers on the lead lap at the end. Mario Moraes and Bruno Junquiera were still running as well.