Franchitti takes risk and wins Indy 500

The Baltimore Sun

INDIANAPOLIS -- Have you seen the trailers for Ashley Judd's latest performance? They've been all over TV. Terrific stuff.

She's a race driver's wife, running barefoot in a pouring rain down the pit lane at Indianapolis, soaking wet, hair and dress stuck to her skin, shivering more with joy than cold - just ecstatic.

She's trying to get to victory lane to kiss her husband, who has just become the first Scotsman to win the Indianapolis 500 since Jim Clark in 1965, by gambling that rain would cut short the race before he ran out of fuel.

For a while it didn't look as if Dario would make it. (Dario's her husband, see. How a Scot got the name Dario Franchitti makes the story line even better.) But then his brilliant young protege crashed horrifically and went upside down and caused a terrible melee, debris flying everywhere.

Awful as it was, the crash guaranteed that Dario could cruise comfortably under caution, conserving fuel. (Don't worry, the kid wasn't hurt, other than bruised.) No sooner had Ashley lifted her face to the sky with gratitude than she felt the rain on it. As it began to pour, she made no effort to take cover; she removed her hat and shoes and began that barefoot sprint.

What's that? When will this be in theaters? Wait a minute. Nobody said Ashley Judd plays a race driver's wife. She is a race driver's wife.

And the scene was fact, not fiction yesterday.

And finally, Dario Franchitti will be known as the winner of the 91st Indy 500, and not just as Ashley Judd's husband, as he's been in the past.

The protege who crashed was Marco Andretti. (The subplot being that the saga of Andretti family heartbreak at Indy just kept on rolling, the longest-running tragedy in the history of the Brickyard.) So, anyway, Ashley gets to victory lane, and there's her husband taking his helmet off. He's so dazed with disbelief that he's actually won this thing that he's a little glassy-eyed. Almost like he barely recognizes her.

She barely gets to plant one good smooch on his mouth before here comes his whole adoring team of drivers to hug and kiss him, even though they've lost to him: Michael Andretti, then Tony Kanaan, then Danica Patrick.

Everybody except Marco, who, outside the track hospital is being asked about his crash and showing it hardly means a thing to him, considering.

"It was a big one, all right," Marco said. "All I can say is, I'm so happy for Dario Franchitti."

That's the kind of guy Ashley's husband is - beloved. Appreciated. Felt for.

Largely his was supposed to be a supporting role at Andretti Green Racing: the savvy, hard-luck veteran, mentoring the two bright young stars of IndyCar racing, Marco and Danica.

Franchitti is 34, pretty old for a race driver nowadays. He's been in America for a decade but spent the first six years exiled from Indy due to the CART boycott. Since he finally got to Indy in 2002, his best finish had been third, in 2004.

When he arrived in the U.S., from Edinburgh, nobody could quite figure out how a guy with such an Italian name could speak with such a burr.

Turned out his grandfather, a restaurateur, had migrated from Italy to Scotland, so Dario was indeed a native Scot.

Took a while to get the pronunciation of his surname, too. Some at first said, "Fran-Chitty" until they learned it's "Fran-KEETI."

Anyway, back to the 500, whose end was at first delayed by rain for three hours, and then hastened by another shower at 166 laps of the scheduled 200.

The long delay had begun just after the halfway point, after 113 laps. When the drivers finally took to the track again, Franchitti got a punctured tire just before the restart.

He had to pit, and his stellar teammates left him behind. Off they went, running 1-2-3: Kanaan, Patrick, Marco Andretti, with Michael Andretti running within striking distance.

Now the plot was thicker than the humid air that threatened rain again on Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As it would turn out, the unscheduled stop "put us on the strategy that won us the race," Franchitti would say later.

The pivotal moment was the next caution, when the leaders all pitted. Franchitti stayed out and inherited the lead.

On that restart, Kanaan was caught up in the crash of Jaques Lazier. Patrick narrowly dodged the wreck. Then she and both Andrettis were stuck back in traffic after their stops.

Then Marco went upside down on Lap 162, and Franchitti cruised under caution until the rain started so that on the 166th lap the checkered flag joined the yellow flying.

"Who would have thought it? Can you believe it?" he said in his Scottish lilt and burr. "I'm in shock. ... I'm definitely in shock."

From a guy who'd barely noticed Ashley Judd kissing him, you could believe that.

His wife did not attend the winner's news conference. This moment, for once, belonged solely to Dario Franchitti.

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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