In a fitting finish to the 2009 IndyCar Series championship, title contenders Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe ran away from the rest of the 23-car starting field, and battled among themselves for the race victory and drivers’ championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Under hot and very humid conditions that tested both man and machine, Franchitti prevailed by adopting a fuel strategy that ensured he could complete the race with just three pit stops, while both of his rivals had to make a final "splash and go" stop in the closing laps. As a result, Franchitti swept into the lead for the final time on Lap 195 and held on for his fifth race win of 2009, and second IndyCar championship in the last three years.
This evening’s season-concluding 300-mile contest capped another weekend -- and a fourth consecutive season -- of reliable performance for the Indy V-8 engine. Throughout 2009, a total of 40 drivers completed more than 202,210 miles of practice, qualifying and racing, with only a single in-race engine failure. That sole failure was the result of a broken alternator wire aboard Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car at Infineon Raceway in August.
For the fourth consecutive season, Honda powered the entire 33-car Indianapolis 500 starting field, and for a record-extending fourth consecutive year -- and the only four times in Indy 500 history -- there was not a single engine failure. In addition, 19 of the 20 cars running at the end of this year’s ‘500’ were on the lead lap, another testament to Honda’s efforts in providing reliable and equal IndyCar Series engines.
At the green, Dixon, Franchitti and Briscoe established their dominance over the field, quickly pulling away from all challengers and lapping the rear of the field as early as Lap 21. By the first round of pit stops, only 10 cars were on the lead lap and by the end of the 200-lap contest even fourth-finishing Tony Kanaan was one lap down.
Dixon and Briscoe traded the lead repeatedly through the event, but Franchitti battled handling issues in the early laps that were only cured during his first pit stop. However, by then his team had already elected to adopt a conservation strategy and -- barring a yellow-flag caution period -- Franchitti could then continue to run a safe third and wait for his rivals to make their fourth and final stops.
In the end, it was a caution-free race -- the first in IndyCar Series history -- and the average speed of 201.420 mph was the second-fastest in series history. All of which played into Franchitt’s hands as the Scot followed up his 2007 championship -- he spent the 2008 season in NASCAR competition -- with the 2009 title.
Kanaan’s inspiring drive from 15th on the grid to fourth at the checkers moved him up two positions in the final drivers’ championship standings, to sixth, just behind his Andretti Green Racing teammate, Danica Patrick, who was eliminated from today’s contest following a pit-lane collision with Dan Wheldon.
Helio Castroneves rebounded from a crash in practice, caused by suspension failure, to finish fifth; with Hideki Mutoh rounding out the top six. Luczo Dragon Racing’s Raphael Matos had a disappointing run to finish 14th, four laps down, but still secured series Rookie of the Year honors.
This evening’s race concluded the 2009 IndyCar Series. The 2010 season opens March 14 in Brazil, with the first domestic race taking place March 28 at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Final IndyCar Series Standings (after 17 of 17 races):
1. Dario Franchitti 616 points (5 wins)
2. Scott Dixon 605 (5 wins)
3. Ryan Briscoe 604 (3 wins)
4. Helio Castroneves 433 (2 wins)
5. Danica Patrick 393
6. Tony Kanaan 386
7. Graham Rahal 385
8. Marco Andretti 380
9. Justin Wilson 354 (1 win)
10. Dan Wheldon 354
11. Hideki Mutoh 353
12. Ed Carpenter 321
Dario Franchitti (#10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) Started 1st, finished 1st, fifth IndyCar Series win of 2009, 2009 IndyCar Series Champion, his second IndyCar drivers’ championship; 13th career IndyCar Series victory and 23rd U.S. open-wheel racing win, all with Honda power : "Our car wasn’t quite ‘there’ during our first stint, while [teammate] Scott [Dixon] was really, really quick. So we made the decision early to start saving fuel and go with that [fuel conservation] strategy. As it turned out, we made some minor changes at our first pit stop, and our car was really quick after that, probably as good as Scott or Ryan [Briscoe]. But now, we were commited to our strategy and we stuck with it. It was a gamble, but obviously it paid off for us in the best possible way. After the checker, we ran completely out of fuel while I was trying to do ‘donuts’ around the track. I told my guys I need to work on the donuts, but we were OK on the fuel strategy!
Ten years ago this month, I was battling Juan Pablo Montoya for the CART Championship and it also came down to the final race of the year. I didn’t win, but that became irrelevant when we lost my good friend, Greg Moore, that day. This win is for him."
Ryan Briscoe (#6 Team Penske Honda) Started 3rd, finished 2nd, third in the championship: "In one way, it’s pretty frustrating because I think I drove the hardest race of my life today. But you know, you can’t be too disappointed. We gave it everything we had and it was an excellent season for us, one of the best in my career. But both Dario [Franchitti] and Scott [Dixon] were excellent all season long, and Dario certainly earned his title. We just have to come back stronger and get them next year."
Scott Dixon (#9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) Started 2nd, finished 3rd, second in the championship: "It was a fantastic race and a fantastic season. Dario [Franchitti] deserved the title; he drove great all season long. Still, it IS disappointing to finish second in the championship, but it’s great for Dario and just a tremendous day for Team Target. You can look back and play the ‘what if’ game all night long, but that doesn’t change the outcome. I’m already looking forward to 2010."
Jack Spurney (General Manager, Honda Performance Development) on today’s season-ending race: "It was a fantastic, three-way fight for the championship that was up for grabs until the final laps, when Dario Franchitti’s fuel strategy finally paid off. For much of the race, you could see Dario was waiting patiently in third, saving fuel, until Ryan [Briscoe] and Scott [Dixon] were forced to pit for fuel. It was an incredibly clean race, the first IndyCar race in history run without a single yellow flag. Yet, there was plenty of passing and action throughout.
"Congratulations to Dario and the entire Target Chip Ganassi Racing team on their race win and 2009 championship. And equally, congratulations to Ryan and Team Penske, as well as Scott and his ‘side’ of the Target team, for an exciting and well-fought season. And of course, congratulations to all our associates at Honda Performance Development and our technical partners at Illmor Engineering for another stellar season of tremendous reliability and performance for the Honda Indy V-8."