INDIANAPOLIS – It was an hour before the Indianapolis 500, and Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan found a quiet corner to prepare for the race. They were interrupted by Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford, three of the greatest drivers in IndyCar history.
"T.K. and I were getting our pictures taken. We were like a couple of kids," Franchitti said. "We were with the legends of the sport."
Hey, Dario, welcome to that club.
Franchitti became the 10th driver in the 96 years of Indianapolis to win three or more 500s, picking up his third on Sunday by winning a last-lap trophy dash with Takuma Sato to the checkered flag. Sato tried to pass for the lead going into the first turn, pulled even with Franchitti, then spun hard into the wall after their wheels appeared to make contact.
It let Franchitti sail away to the win on a day that started and ended as a tribute to Dan Wheldon, who won the race a year ago but was killed in an October crash in the IndyCar season finale. Finishing right behind him was teammate Scott Dixon and then Kanaan -- three of D-Dub's closest friends.
"Everybody up there was a friend of Dan's, and that about sums it up. Everybody loved him," Franchitti said as bagpipes played over the public address system. "I think D-Dub would be proud of that one."
Franchitti can be proud of what he's done.
The Scot has long been reluctant to consider his place in IndyCar history, even though his accomplishments have clearly made him one of the greats. He's won the last three championships, has three Indy 500 wins and with 31 career victories is tied with Sebastien Bourdais and Paul Tracy on the all-time wins list.
One more win will move Franchitti into seventh place in the record books. The only drivers ahead of him? The giants of open-wheel racing: three Unsers, two Andrettis and A.J. Foyt, the all-time wins leader.
"I'm very proud of the achievements, whether it's Indy wins, championships, every one of the race wins," he said. "Sometimes I look back, but generally I'm trying to look forward. When I retire, that's the time to look back."
Much of his success has come since 2009, when he returned from a brief foray into NASCAR. Franchitti ran only 12 races in stock cars in 2008, missing a stretch with a broken ankle before owner Chip Ganassi pulled the plug on the team because of sponsorship woes.
He was back in IndyCar the next year, rolling on to become the most decorated driver in the series. Franchitti has 13 wins, two Indy 500s and three consecutive championships since his return.
"He was back to something that he was really comfortable with and around the people that he knew really well," Dixon said. "I think he was actually hungry after that, too, because he wanted to prove when he came back that he was still the driver that he was. He's definitely done that -- maybe a little too much."
It's fitting that his latest feat came at Indy, where Wheldon was on everyone's minds Sunday.
And as his three friends lined up with six laps remaining for the final restart -- Kanaan out front, Franchitti and Dixon second and third -- they couldn't help but wonder if Wheldon was at play.
"Kind of like old times, the three of us back and forwards," Franchitti said. "I thought, `Dan is laughing at us right now going at it."'
The elation for Franchitti's win was tempered by the heartbreak for two other deserving drivers. Dixon, a one-time Indy 500 winner, temporarily relocated his family to St. Petersburg, Fla., to support Wheldon's wife and two sons, and Kanaan, 0 for 11 now at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had openly wept following the death of his former teammate.
"I think a lot of us that were close to Dan, you know, you wanted it that little bit more," Dixon said. "I guess maybe in the back of your mind, you figured he would probably help you out today, too. I think in that situation, seeing how it lined up with the top three, three of Dan's friends, it was a tough one."
The race had developed into what was expected to be a duel to the finish between Franchitti and Dixon. But when the Scot made his final pass of Dixon with two laps to go, he pulled Sato with him and it sapped Dixon's momentum.
So the last-lap pass attempt was Sato's for the taking -- "Job done," he later admitted thinking -- but he couldn't pull it off as he hugged the inside white line through Turn 1. His wheels appeared to touch Franchitti's, he spun into the wall, and Franchitti pulled away past for the win -- this one, just like the first two, under caution.
Dixon crossed the finish line in second, and Kanaan was third, and Franchitti was reminded of the delicate balance in celebrating a team win vs. beating a teammate.
"I want to beat Scott. I know he wants to beat me. I don't think I've met maybe a more competitive individual, except maybe Dan in the early years," Franchitti said. "Out on the track, he's competition, but a teammate, and then afterward he's my friend. I see the disappointment in his face. I see the disappointment in T.K.'s face.
"I think both those guys will get more championships and Indy wins. They're just too good not to. When you beat guys like that, I take that as a big accomplishment because, God, they're not easy to beat."
Kanaan, who used a bold move on a late restart to dart from fifth to first, couldn't hold off Franchitti and Dixon on the last restart. He was OK with the final result.
"I don't think it could have been a better result for Dan," Kanaan said. "Wherever he is right now, he's definitely making fun of Sato, I can tell you that, and he's giving Dario a tap on the back for sure, and he was going to call me a wanker that I didn't win this thing.
"I'm glad this is over. I'm glad that now I hope we can all move on and just remember Dan the way Dan was -- a happy guy, a wonderful friend."
Wheldon's wife, Susie, went to Victory Lane to congratulate Franchitti, who hid his tears of joy behind a pair of white sunglasses worn in tribute because they were Wheldon's preference. She then sat next to Franchitti's wife, actress Ashley Judd, in the backseat of the convertible -- the same seat she had a year ago for Wheldon's win -- for the victory lap around the 2.5-mile oval.
The day opened with car owner Bryan Herta driving a single memorial lap around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the car Wheldon drove to victory last year. Fans were given white sunglasses to wear on laps 26 and 98, marking the car numbers Wheldon used in his two wins.
It was Susie Wheldon's first trip to any race track since her husband's death, and she watched from Dixon's pit stand with his wife, Emma.
So it was apt on this hot day -- the temperature hit 91 degrees, just one shy of the Indy 500 record set in 1937 -- that one of the most competitive races in history ended with a frantic push from Wheldon's friends. Ten drivers swapped the lead 35 times, shattering the record of 29 in the 1960 race won by Jim Rathmann.
Until the last lap, when Sato made his move for the win, the race was close but uneventful.
The only multi-car accident came when a spin by Mike Conway collected Will Power, who came to Indy as the series points leader and winner of the last three races this season. It was a somewhat frightening accident as Conway, who broke his front wing when he hit one of his crew members on pit road, hit the outside wall and his car tilted on its side before coming to rest. And Helio Castroneves had to deftly maneuver past a bouncing tire that still grazed one of his own wheels.
Besides that, though, the race was slowed by just seven other cautions -- including the one on the last lap -- for 39 of the 200 laps.
The series' next stop is June 3 in Belle Isle, Mich.