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She skipped across the most famous red bricks in racing, splashing into puddles and flashing a dimpled smile. As a springtime shower fell from the Indiana sky, Dario Franchitti's No. 1 fan held her high heels in her hands and bounded barefoot down pit road at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, searching for the man who is the self-described "invisible" driver of the IndyCar Series. "One by one, Dario picked those other drivers off," said actress Ashley Judd, Franchitti's wife, as she squinted into the rain. "This is waaaaaaay overdue."
On Sunday at the Brickyard, in the 91st running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the struggling IndyCar Series got something it desperately needed out of its marquee event: a winner with potential star power. Since his debut on the Indy circuit in 2002, Franchitti--a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, and a resident of Nashville--had only four wins and had never finished higher than fourth in the final standings or sixth in the 500. Soft-spoken, with the contemplative manner of an English-lit grad student, Franchitti happily blends into the background at Andretti Green Racing, the organization that dominated the month of May at Indy. AGR boasts an A-list lineup of open-wheel drivers comprising a pair of Andrettis (team co-owner Michael and his 20-year-old son, Marco), Tony Kanaan (the 2004 IndyCar champ, who's also a champion talker) and Danica Patrick (who for the third straight year at the Brickyard sold more merchandise than any other driver and was everywhere in the prerace media coverage). Then there's the 34-year-old Franchitti, who married a movie star in 2001 but is as low-key as any driver in IndyCar.
"I don't have a big personality like some of my teammates, but I like my role," says Franchitti, the first driver signed by AGR, who frequently tutors Marco Andretti and the 25-year-old Patrick on the finer points of racing. "I've been waiting for this day, and today it's finally good to get noticed."
For most of the Indy 500, however, it was Franchitti's teammates who commanded the attention. Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Patrick were running first, second and third, respectively, on Lap 113 when the first rainstorm blew over the speedway, causing the race to be red-flagged for two hours and 57 minutes. To wait out the delay, the five AGR drivers, who had all qualified in the top 11, retreated to their engineering headquarters in the garage. As they munched on pasta, the close-knit group mapped out its strategy for the final laps--assuming there would be any. If the race could not resume, Kanaan would be the winner. Franchitti, his best friend in racing, needled the 32-year-old Brazilian by jokingly asking if he was "stressed," which prompted an R-rated retort from Kanaan and a round of laughs.
When the skies cleared and the race resumed, Franchitti was in fifth, but just one lap after the restart he cut a tire on a piece of debris, forcing him to make an unscheduled pit stop. He fell to 14th but then charged up through the field, displaying the car control and sense of anticipation that he learned in the early 1990s while driving in the British Formula Three series for his racing mentor, Jackie Stewart, a fellow Scot and three-time Formula One champion.
By Lap 131 Franchitti had made it up to seventh. Another storm was approaching, and computer screens in every pit glowed with radar maps. Franchitti was in third when the caution flag waved on Lap 150, after Marty Roth crashed. The two drivers in front of Franchitti--Kanaan and Sam Hornish Jr.--had to pit for fuel, but Franchitti had plenty of ethanol left in his tank thanks to his earlier unplanned stop, so he stayed out. Suddenly, he was in the lead.
When green-flag racing resumed, Franchitti pulled away from Scott Dixon and was hurtling down the backstretch on Lap 157 when Marco Andretti collided with Buddy Rice. The younger Andretti, who had finished second last year to Hornish by .0635 of a second, went airborne and rolled in a frightening crash. He emerged unhurt, but the incident added another chapter to the tome of Andretti heartbreaks at Indy. (His father, Michael, who finished 13th on Sunday in his final Indy 500, led 431 laps in 16 career starts but never won; grandfather Mario, one of American racing's greatest drivers, won only once in 29 starts.) The yellow flag waved again, and minutes later another downpour hit. The race was called; while tooling along at 47 mph under caution, Franchitti was awarded the signature win of his career.
"[Dario] has helped build Andretti Green Racing to where it is today," said Michael Andretti, whose team has won two of the last three season championships and two of the last three Indy 500s. "It wasn't meant to be [for me] to win it as a driver.... Maybe I'm just meant to win 15 of these as an owner."
The real winner on Sunday, however, may have been the IndyCar Series. Ever since open-wheel racing split into two bodies (CART and IndyCar) in 1996, fans have fled from the sport. This opened the door for NASCAR's boom, and now IndyCar needs a new cast of marketable stars to emerge, as Patrick did when she took fourth at Indy in 2005. Enter Franchitti. Equal parts Hollywood husband and friendly next-door neighbor, Franchitti has the potential to appeal to a broad spectrum of fans, � la Patrick, who finished eighth on Sunday after running as high as second.
"This is the biggest day of my career, and I hope it's the start of something wonderful," said Franchitti on Sunday evening between sips of hot tea. He was sitting in a room high above the speedway, and outside the clouds had cleared and the sunset was spilling across the horizon. Appropriately, for the first time all day, a golden light was shining on Indy's newest attraction.