Tony Kanaan won the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix on Sunday – his third victory in the last four races.But a crash involving championship contenders Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon on the next-to-last lap put Franchitti back into the points lead heading into next week’s season finale at Chicagoland Speedway.
Dixon was running third and Franchitti fourth on the penultimate lap when Dixon attempted to pass second-place Buddy Rice, whose car ran out of fuel and slowed suddenly heading into Turn 13.
Rice slid into the tyre barrier, but Dixon, quick on the throttle and out of sorts from Rice’s sudden deceleration, began a quarter spin to his right. Dixon’s car stopped in the middle of the track and rolled back, collecting Franchitti.
“It was the most bizarre thing,” Franchitti said. “We were sitting there staring at each other. There’s no yellow flag that I know of, so the safety guys can’t come out and help me. No reverse gear, so I’m just sitting there. That upset me more than the incident itself.”
Franchitti, who kept the engine fired during the incident, finally coaxed safety workers into a push, got the No. 27 Andretti Green Racing Honda/Dallara rolling again and crossed the finish line sixth. That was good for a two-position gain and a seven-point swing on Dixon, whose engine died after the crash.
“I said this was going to be a hell of a championship battle, and it’s going to be,” Franchitti said. “We want to win and they want to win. On the track, we don’t take any prisoners.”
Michael Andretti, co-owner of AGR, accused Dixon of purposely wrecking Franchitti by staying off the brake and letting the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda/Dallara roll back in front of Franchitti’s car.
“Poor sportsmanship is what I saw,” Andretti said. “He took Dario out on purpose. He saw that Dario was going to be able to get by him, so he let off the brake and took Dario out. It was totally on purpose.”
Dixon said the incident never would have happened had Rice not ran out of fuel and slowed in front of him heading into a sharp turn.
“I wasn’t trying to pass Buddy,” Dixon said. “I was in a good position and would not have risked it, but he ran out of fuel. I sideswiped Buddy but tried to keep going. I was just trying to stay ahead of Franchitti for valuable points.”
The tangle between leaders also led to an angry confrontation between AGR co-owner Kevin Savoree and Ganassi, whose teams were pitted next to one another. Savoree reportedly confronted Ganassi after the crash. The two exchanged angry words before walking away.
“It’s part of the game,” Kanaan said. “People are trying to get everything they can. People are trying to do anything they can to disrupt the other team.
“Anything you can do to gain an advantage is fair game. It’s been so close and the fight for the championship has been so hard. They play every card they get, and we play every card we get.”
Lost in the action and anger was Kanaan’s fifth victory of the season, one that – coupled with the late crash – brought him to within 39 points of the lead, still capable of stealing the championship at Chicago.
“Yes, it’s been crazy, but it’s also been good,” Kanaan said of the intensity of the duel between Andretti Green and Ganassi.
“As drivers, we always get along. We’re one big family. But sometimes it’s good to have what we have now. I’m not saying the bad stuff and the fighting are good things, but we’re humans. We’re under pressure.”
But the drama in what had been a run-of-the-mill street race began when Rice’s car sputtered and slowed dramatically heading into Turn 13 on the 88th lap of the 89-lap race. Rice apologized to Ganassi, his team manager, Mike Hull, and Franchitti following the race.
“I just feel bad,” Rice said. “They were cool and they understand. It wasn’t like I was trying to crash. It’s just disappointing to be involved in the championship that way.”
Dixon ducked inside on the right-hand turn, brushed Rice’s No. 15 Dreyer & Reinbold Honda/Dallara, and then spun sideways to his right under acceleration.
The car stopped sideways in mid-track, then rolled back in front of Franchitti, a move that angered almost everyone in the AGR pits except Franchitti.
“Some people think it was intentional,” Franchitti said. “I just know that, apart from (two incidents of blocking), Scott has raced me cleanly all year and I’ve raced him cleanly. So going on past form, I don’t think he would have done it intentionally.”
Dixon scoffed at the notion that he would be good enough or quick enough to intentionally roll his car back in front of Franchitti’s. “I would never have done anything intentional,” Dixon said.
However, Kanaan, who was criticized the previous week by Dixon after Kanaan’s controversial effort to protect Franchitti in the late laps at Infineon Raceway, took Sunday’s opportunity to accuse Dixon of intentionally staying off the brake in order to block Franchitti.
“I strongly believe he did it on purpose,” Kanaan said. “Now he can say no; we can’t prove it. He can say, ‘I was crashing and I couldn’t reach the brakes.’ Brian Barnhart always tells us in the drivers’ meetings that there are some parts of the rules that race control cannot judge.
“Only we, the people who drive the race cars, will know. Do I think it was on purpose? Yes. But what he said last week is true: What goes around comes around.”
Overshadowed in the late-race drama, ironically enough, was the best finish of Danica Patrick’s career, a runner-up effort that most likely would have been a fifth-place effort had Rice, Dixon and Franchitti not crashed.
“It was a fun-filled day for me,” Patrick said. “We weren’t the fastest car, but we were fast enough to be there to be in contention and be there to do something about it, which was half the battle.”
Wheldon, accused by Franchitti of holding him up earlier in the race, scored a surprising podium. “It was good from our standpoint to finish among the top three,” Wheldon said. “It’s a little unfortunate for Scott, but he’s still in a great position to be able to win the championship.”
Following Kanaan, Patrick and Wheldon were Darren Manning and Kosuke Matsuura, who recorded his second-best finish of the season.
The crash victims – Franchitti, Rice and Dixon – finished sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively, while Vision Racing teammates A.J. Foyt IV and Ed Carpenter held down ninth and 10th.
The only other serious incident in the day cost Helio Castroneves and Tomas Scheckter solid finishes, as the two collided in Turn 1.
“Maybe he should start thinking about driving and stop thinking about dancing,” Scheckter quipped, referring to Castroneves’ upcoming appearance on “Dancing with the Stars.” “Because that was a stupid move.”