SPEEDWAY, Ind. - Randy Bernard has pleaded for the most accomplished driver in IndyCar series to get more recognition for the big wins and championships he's accumulated.
Sunday, Dario Franchitti did his part in the sport's biggest race to help Bernard - or, at the very least, continue adding to his own impressive trophy case.
Franchitti took the twin checkered flags in Sunday's 96th Indianapolis 500, overcoming an early spin on pit road and a desperate takeover bid by Takuma Sato for the lead on the last lap - a move that sent Sato's car piling in to the turn one wall.
Franchitti, driving a Honda-powered Dallara for Chip Ganassi Racing, is now one of 10 drivers in the race's 101-year history to score three or more wins. Helio Castroneves is the only other current driver with three wins in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Franchitti's wife and actress Ashley Judd made it abundantly clear what the win meant for the Scottish driver as she celebrated his third win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"Did you see him go from 25th to third on a single green flag run? I don't think anyone has ever done that before," Judd said, breathless from celebrating the win in the Ganassi pit stall.
"He's a legend."
Biased or not, Judd is right about Franchitti's newly cemented status as IndyCar's greatest current driver - and potentially one of American open-wheel racing's all-time greats. But before discussion about Franchitti's place in racing history - he said he won't think about his trophies until he retires - Sunday's race offered plenty to give it a memorable place in Indianapolis 500 lore.
In the first year of the newly designed Dallara DW12 IndyCar, drivers were closer than ever at Indianapolis. Thanks to the bigger wake created by the cars, the lead was hardly ever safe for the car in front. Franchitti's final takeover of the lead - he passed teammate Scott Dixon with just two circuits of the 2.5-mile track remaining - was the 34th of the steamy hot day. The number broke the previous record for lead changes of 29 set 52 years ago.
The race also tied for the second hottest in Indianapolis history when the National Weather Service recorded a high of 91 degrees.
The restarts following caution flags were also some of the most gut-wrenching at Indianapolis in recent years. When the race restarted after a caution flag with just 17 laps left and Franchitti leading, veteran Tony Kanaan used a wave of momentum to catapult from sixth to first with a set of three- and four-wide moves along the narrow frontstretch. When the track public address system boomed that Kanaan was the new leader, Indianapolis' massive crowd roared.
"The first thing I did when I passed the five cars on the restart [was look] at the grandstands because I wanted to see the people," said Kanaan, who's yet to break his streak of being an Indianapolis bridesmaid.
"People were screaming. It's awesome. I love this place."
The crowd was standing when the green flag waved after another late caution with just seven laps to go. Franchitti took the green and this time held off Kanaan for good, but not before his Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon took a turn at the front with three laps to go.
With two laps left, Franchitti made his move on Dixon to retake the lead as the field roared in to turn one. Japan's Takuma Sato, strong all day in the race's underdog role, boldly followed Franchitti under Dixon. The move by Sato set up the race's pinnacle moment, when he flashed underneath Franchitti toward the end of the front straightaway with the white flag waving.
Franchitti held his position as Sato dove in the corner lower than the standard racing line. Sato drew alongside for a split second before his rear wheels broke traction and his car snapped sideways. Franchitti felt slight contact from Sato's car but managed to keep control as Sato careened into the turn one wall.
"The car was obviously too loose," said Franchitti. "Last lap of the Indianapolis 500. I wouldn't expect him to lift at that point."
The caution flag out, Franchitti needed just pass the start/finish line for the final time. As his red-clad pit crew spewed on to pit lane in celebration, Franchitti was a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner.
"What a race, what a race. I think D-dub would be proud of that one," Franchitti said, referring to his late friend and 2011 Indianapolis winner Dan Wheldon. Franchitti's face will now be placed on the iconic Borg-Warner trophy next to Wheldon's after a day in which the two-time winner was honored at almost every turn.
In fact, the top three finishers - Franchitti, Dixon and Kanaan - were all close friends of Wheldon and were quite cognizant of the peculiar finish.
"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. "
For Bernard, the IndyCar CEO tasked with raising the profile of American open-wheel racing after years of split and strife all but drop-kicked it to the lowest rungs of the mainstream sports ladder, he got yet another thrilling edition of the world's most famous race.
When discussing the departure of Danica Patrick - IndyCar's best female driver ever and most marketable icon - Bernard said he takes it personal that Franchitti doesn't get the acclaim that other top drivers or athletes get.
"We have this great legend [in Franchitti] that doesn't resonate with fans to the amount of his credibility," Bernard said last week. "That's a disappointment to me. I have to focus on that."
Mike Hull, the team managing director at Chip Ganassi Racing, was confident Sunday's race did what it should to boost the profile of the series.
"At 400 miles we saw a trophy dash," Hull said, lamenting previous series finishes that had more to do with managing fuel consumption than driving all out. "That was really good."
While there's no immediate telling if Franchitti's win jumps his profile among mainstream sports like Bernard would love, it certainly cements Franchitti as a legend in his field. Franchitti now has 30 wins in American open-wheel racing and is a four-time and defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion.
"In Dario's case, we have a guy that hasn't reached his midlife crisis yet, that drives with the experience of his age, but he comes to work every day with the enthusiasm and the intent of an 18-year-old," said Hull. "That's a pretty tough combination to beat."
But don't ask Franchitti to discuss his place in racing lore.
"I'm very proud - and I've said this before - of the achievements, whether its Indy wins, championships, every one of the race wins," Franchitti said after walking from victory lane to the infield media center among a roar from the fans still around almost an hour after the race. "Sometimes I look back, but generally I'm trying to look forward. When I retire, that's the time to look back and hang out with my friends here, hang over the fence, shout abuse at [Dixon], Will [Power], Tony [Kanaan], all the guys that are still racing."
However, retirement doesn't seem very close for Franchitti, who turned 39 one week before Sunday's race. He now owns three Indianapolis wins in just nine starts and sits just one more triumph from joining Indianapolis' most exclusive club held by just three men.
And after Sunday's performance, that fourth doesn't seem so far off.