By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The third round of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge takes a virtual visit to the Irish Hills of Michigan International Speedway Saturday with the likes of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Ryan Hunter-Reay making their league debuts.
It’s also the first time Michigan and Indy car racing are mentioned in the same breath since 2007 when the sport last ran the real-life two-mile circuit. Tony Kanaan scored the victory on what was an unforgettable day for Andretti Autosport (then known as Andretti Green Racing).
Although Kanaan ate some pizza to celebrate his second Michigan win, this 200-lap saga is mostly remembered for a breathtaking crash involving Kanaan’s then-teammate and championship leader Dario Franchitti, but there’s more to that race than just him going airborne.
The 2007 Firestone Indy 400 was the 13th round of the 17-round championship trail and it got hammered by lengthy rain delay that forced the race telecast to air from ESPN2 to ESPN Classic.
Once it finally got going just before 5:00pm local time (originally scheduled to have commenced past noon), Franchitti, who had a 24-point lead over Scott Dixon, led the 20-car field to the green flag.
Outside pole sitter Sam Hornish, Jr. didn’t waste time as Franchitti had to earn that opening lap advantage which he was successful, taking full control of the race early on.
Both Team Penske drivers of Hornish and Helio Castroneves had some setbacks with the former dealing with an onboard weight jacker issue, causing handling issues. As for Castroneves, he had laryngitis, making team communications difficult.
It didn’t stop them from chasing Franchitti as they were hot on his tales, but they weren’t the only ones trying to stop the 2007 Indy 500 champion.
The Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Dixon, hungry for his fourth straight INDYCAR win, and Dan Wheldon were on the lead draft.
All five drivers remained composed until dealing with the moving chicane of Jon Herb on Lap 23. Herb’s day came to an end on Lap 28 when he crashed on the backstretch. This proved to be the Chicago driver-owner’s final INDYCAR start after crashing out in all three of his races that season.
Once the race resumed, eighth-place starter Kanaan was on the move after his team made front wing adjustments. It was the exact setup Franchitti had in order to eliminate the “pig” under-steering. The end result was positive as Kanaan went from fifth to second in a few laps, catching Franchitti while fending off the rest of the pack.
With rain still a massive concern, there was a sense of urgency for the field racing past halfway for the delayed race to become official. However, the sprint race mentality was constantly halted with multiple cautions, including Castroneves’ day ending on Lap 58 after crashing with Vitor Meira on the frontstretch.
In the midst of all the pressure, Franchitti’s day took a sudden turn on Lap 48 when his Honda stalled on pit road and had to restart in 18th. Several laps later, Franchitti already worked his way back to first as the championship leader led eight times for 101 laps.
It appeared a fourth date to victory lane was in the works until Lap 143 when his dominant day would come into a violent halt and all what people thought about.
On the backstretch, a battle for the lead involving Franchitti, Wheldon and Danica Patrick went awry as both Wheldon and Franchitti touched wheels. Wheldon’s contact sent Franchitti airborne as teammates and competitors scattered to avoid him. Dixon wasn’t so lucky as he crashed into the side of Franchitti’s car, putting his car upside down.
Also involved in the carnage were Hornish, A.J. Foyt IV and Tomas Scheckter as the crowd went silent for a few minutes.
Fortunately, the safety team and Hornish, who got out of his car to help, did a phenomenal job lifting Franchitti’s car gently back up and the points leader got out of his stricken Honda unscathed.
Once checked and released from the infield care center, Franchitti was asking around what had happened, but was glad Dixon was alright after the brutal contact.
“Dan sort of thinks he came up a bit and I came down a bit. We were running so close just trying to get an advantage. Sometimes it’s stupid like that when you’re flat the whole time and looking for that advantage,” Franchitti on the crash. “We touched and the next thing I know I’m upside down and I opened my eyes going backwards about 30 feet in the air, and I thought ‘Well, this isn’t good.’
“When it came down, it actually didn’t feel that bad. I’ve since found out that I came down on top of Scott and I’m really glad he’s okay. I’m glad everybody involved are okay.
“I said to Scott that we got to stop meeting like that. We’ve been running side-by-side in so many races recently, and he definitely helped me out. I’m just glad everyone’s okay. It’s not a lot of fun when it’s like this.”
When the 27-lap caution period ended, Marco Andretti, who had his car worked on well-before halfway, suddenly hit his stride as there was only seven cars remaining when the last restart finally commencing on Lap 171 with Scott Sharp leading.
Marco restarted sixth, but wowed the crowd by going on the top lane and went four wide with Kanaan, Hunter-Reay and Kosuke Matsuura to take second before heading into Turn 1. Even taking the lead away from Sharp for a brief moment.
Brief because Marco’s daring move didn’t impress INDYCAR officials as they slapped him with a restart penalty. To avoid a visit to pit road, Marco gave up track position, but he wouldn’t be out of the running.
As the laps wind down, it was an Andretti Green Racing stranglehold with Kanaan, Marco and Patrick holding the top-three spots. The battle was narrowed down to two because a right rear tire from Patrick’s car went down with 14 laps remaining.
She was forced to pit, leaving her distraught as a shot of her maiden win was over and had to settle for seventh.
“I’m so mad,” an emotional Patrick after the race. “Of course I’m going to think of myself first. You know, I thought that was my chance to win. I was 80% sure that was me and could not believe my right rear tire was going flat. I couldn’t believe it.”
With Patrick out of the picture, Kanaan and Marco were a league of their own as Franchitti, who left Michigan still ahead of Dixon by 24 points, watching the action with the team.
Marco tried to pass Kanaan by going on the top groove for many laps, but just couldn’t clear him at the end of the backstretch and ultimately came up 0.060 seconds shy of beating his teammate.
Kanaan’s victory in the 7+ hour marathon was the third of what turned out to be a season-high five wins in 2007.
A relieved Michael Andretti described the 200-lap race that saw his cars finish 1-2 and Franchitti’s crash as simply crazy.
“Dario was doing an awesome job. He was the class of the field and then Dan gets into him. Thank god, he’s alright,” said Michael. “Then we had three (cars) running up there. Unfortunately, Danica has her problem with a flat tire so then it came down to two of them. Marco and Tony took care of each other and put on a good show, so it was fun watching them.”
After Kanaan did burnouts in front of the dedicated fans who put up with the weather all day, he was relieved to win because he knew he didn’t have a fast car compared to his “wing man” Marco.
“He’s my true teammate,” said Kanaan. “That what’s the beauty, but he was trying. Trust me, he was trying but he protected me and I said, ‘Hey, let’s play it at the end. If you can be quicker than me, you’re going to win. If I can’t, you’re going to win.'”
Marco came to congratulate Kanaan in victory lane before giving the spotlight back to the veteran. As a matter of fact, the entire team congratulated and consoled each other (notably with Franchitti) after a real long day.
“(Tony is) the reason I’m at INDYCAR when I was 19 years old,” said Marco. “I’m glad that it came down to the two of us. My car was really good in the big pack, but my car didn’t have enough to pull it off on my own. We’ve had a lot of safe and lucky breaks. Someone was looking over us during the race.”
Kanaan added that his 2007 win at Michigan isn’t the same his first in 1999 when he scored his maiden Indy car victory. That’s because it came at a time when the 2004 series champion was expecting a child later that year and the mixed emotions the entire team was dealing with.
“It was a crazy race and special. Every win is special for sure, but it was good for the team,” said Kanaan. “We did what we were supposed to do. Feel sorry for Dario, but as worst as it could be, Dixon went with him.
“We’re looking good. Let’s try to catch Dario in the championship and maybe finish 1-2.”
Franchitti would have yet another flying accident at the very next race in Kentucky, but his luck would turn around as he ended up claiming his first of four INDYCAR championships. He beat Dixon by 13 points after winning the finale at Chicagoland while his adversary ran out of fuel on the last lap.
Although 2007 remains INDYCAR’s final trip to Michigan to date, this unforgettable race will go down as a glass case of emotions for the entire Andretti camp. Two left with disappointing and downright scary shortcomings, but the other two scored max points with the teacher beating the student.