By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - From start to finish, this year's Indianapolis 500 featured everything you would want to see in this prestigious race. It was hot, wild and a lot of fun to watch.
Sunday's Indy 500 was a touching one as well, with competitors and fans paying tribute to the late Dan Wheldon throughout the day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
There were a lot unknowns heading into the 96th running of this race, particularly with the new "DW12" car (named in honor of Wheldon) and Honda lagging behind Chevrolet in engine performance this season.
Could Team Penske and Chevrolet continue their string of perfection in 2012?
Penske, which uses Chevrolet's engine, already had four straight race wins and five consecutive pole victories under its belt this season. All three of Penske's drivers started in the top six for the Indy 500, with Ryan Briscoe winning the pole on May 19.
But Penske and Chevrolet's streaks would no longer be, as Dario Franchitti drove his Honda-powered Target Chip Ganassi Racing car to victory in the Indy 500.
On a day when the air temperature reached a high of 91 degrees -- one degree short of tying the hottest Indy 500 on record (1937) -- Franchitti overcame adversity to become the 10th driver to be at least a three-time winner of the 500-mile race at Indianapolis.
The Scotsman already has an accomplished career, as he won his third consecutive and fourth overall IZOD IndyCar Series championship last year.
With a race that featured a record 34 lead changes, this one was a nail-biter in the closing stages, particularly after the final restart with six laps remaining. The lead swapped three times among Franchitti, his teammate, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan from KV Racing Technology during those half-dozen laps.
Franchitti passed Dixon and took the lead for good with less than two laps to go. Takuma Sato from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing followed Franchitti to take second.
During the final lap, Sato made a bold move to the inside of Franchitti in an attempt to take the lead. But Sato's dreams of pulling off a stunning upset and becoming the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500 came to an abrupt end when he touched Franchitti and then made contact with the outside wall.
"He was very aggressive," Franchitti said of Sato's last-lap maneuver. "I think he thought that was his chance. I mean, why not? I think he did everything right up until he lost the rear-end of the car. That was the problem. I guess the car was too oversteery. He lost the rear.
"He made a good move. I wasn't very happy about it. But, yeah, I didn't touch him. I didn't squeeze him down. He just lost the rear of the car."
The Indy 500 ended under caution for the second year in a row. Franchitti and Dixon gave team owner Chip Ganassi a 1-2 finish at Indy, while Kanaan settled for third. Sato ended up finishing 17th.
"The moment I was alongside Dario, I said to myself, 'Job done'," Sato recalled. "I was hoping that coming out of turn one side-by-side with Dario, I would take the lead going to turn two and three. It didn't work out that way, though. He could have given a little bit more space and I would have come out of the corner with no problem. I was well below the white line into turn one. I was almost in the grass and the car started sliding."
In last year's centennial anniversary of the Indy 500, J.R. Hildebrand led the way on the last lap, but Hildebrand crashed coming out of the final turn, allowing Wheldon to slip by him and win this race for the second time.
For Franchitti to even be in the thick of things in the closing laps of this year's race was a challenge in itself for him.
"It was a crazy race long before that, getting spun in the first pit stop there, having to fight our way from the back to the front," he said. "That was tough, but it also gave me a lot of confidence, because I knew how good the Target car was at that point."
After starting from the inside of row six, Franchitti fell way back in the field to 28th after E.J. Viso bumped him from behind and turned him around in his pit stall during a caution on lap 15. But Franchitti patiently made his way to the front and grabbed the lead for the first time with 47 laps left.
Then it turned into a frenzy from there, as Franchitti and Dixon exchanged the lead 11 times before the race concluded.
"Nobody really wanted to lead because it was right on the margin there for fuel mileage," Dixon said. "You get much better fuel mileage at least one spot back. We went back and forth to try to help each other instead of having to drop back too far and mix it up with people maybe we didn't want to. We definitely talked before the restarts to try to see if we could do that."
Even though Sunday's Indy 500 was filled with sheer excitement, it was a day to remember Wheldon, who suffered a non-survivable head injury during a horrifying 15-car crash last October at Las Vegas.
Team owner Bryan Herta drove Wheldon's 2011 Indy 500-winning car one lap around the historic 2.5-mile oval during a pre-race tribute.
Wheldon's widow, Susie, attended the race, and after its conclusion, she congratulated Franchitti on his victory in the winner's circle. Franchitti dedicated his win to Wheldon, as he donned a pair of white cardboard sunglasses in tribute to his longtime friend and former teammate.
"The thing that really got me was the love that the fans showed for Dan, and the tribute that we were all able to pay him on lap 26, lap 98, doing that," Franchitti said. "Susie came around the car afterwards to see the reaction of how much he was loved. To me, that was a great thing to see. It made me happy."
It was indeed a special day at Indianapolis.
"Dan (Wheldon), his three best friends in the top three, I don't think it could have been any better," Kanaan said. "Well, it could have been if I won."
Kanaan has yet to win the Indy 500 after 11 starts.
Maybe next year.
05/28 14:35:36 ET