AJ Foyt Indy 225
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Overdue
by Esteban Morales

     After sitting out much of the 2003 Indy Racing League season following a motorcycle accident, Dario Franchitti was left with a monumental decision: either become a spectator or endure delicate back surgery with the possibility of returning to the cockpit. After his initial victory at the Milwaukee A.J. Foyt Indy 225 he and wife, Ashley Judd, were convinced the right choice was made.

     Franchitti’s day did not start as joyously as it ended, however. Coming off a string of impressive performances Vitor Meira took pole for the IRL’s inaugural visit to the famed Milwaukee Mile. Before Meira was able to secure pole, defending series champion, Scott Dixon, made hard contact during his run and was unable to make the start of the event. From the drop of the green flag Tony Kanaan made his presence known as he dove beneath Meira to take the lead through turns 3 and 4 on the opening lap. Sam Hornish Jr. took this opportunity to get around Meira on lap 2 and quickly began pursuing Kanaan while the pole-sitter continued to fade. By the 16th lap Hornish had found his way passed Kanaan and soon began to encounter slower traffic. While Hornish continued to lead, Tomas Scheckter pulled into the pits on lap 38 with transmission problems after running in the top 10; this was Scheckter’s fifth DNF this season.

     Just two laps later Scott Sharp spun his Dallara while exiting turn 4. Although he did not hit anything he fell several laps behind the leader continuing his dismal season at Kelley Racing. As the yellow flew Hornish led Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Vitor Meira, and Buddy Rice into the pits for the first pit stops of the event. Castroneves led the field out of the pits but once on the track he had to give way to Bryan Herta; Herta’s Andretti Green Racing crew gambled on pit strategy keeping him out of pit lane. The field momentarily went green until A.J. Foyt IV spun on cold tires. Following the second restart on lap 51 Herta was able to keep the lead for 20 laps until he was consequently forced to pit.

     Following the lead change, Dario Franchitti moved into 2nd a few laps later and grabbed the lead on lap 105 when Castroneves was slowed by Mark Taylor’s lapped car. Franchitti led a few more green flag laps up to the lap 112 caution thrown for debris on the track. Franchitti led the field in and out of the pits as well as the restart. he went on to lead another unchallenged 20 laps but was abruptly halted by another caution after Darren Manning collided with the turn 2 outside retaining wall. Franchitti led the field into pit lane for the event’s final stops but was beaten out by Hornish and Marlboro Team Penske. During the caution, the second Penske driver, Helio Castroneves, pulled off the track with engine maladies while Dan Wheldon hung up his helmet for the day following a mechanical failure.

     Franchitti timed a flawless attack once the green flag dropped on lap 156. Both he and Hornish drove down the front straight wheel to wheel with Franchitti at a slight advantage on the outside. As Franchitti retook the lead fuel mileage became a major concern with many of the leaders uncertain as to whether or not they would make it to the end without a splash and go. With only 14 laps remaining a dozen prayers were answered as Jaques Lazier made contact and the last yellow flew. Only 7 laps remained when Franchitti led over Buddy Rice with the lapped car of Adrian Fernandez in between the two. On the restart Fernandez moved low allowing the leaders to battle it out. As the race culminated it seemed like an unnecessary gesture with Rice unable to close on a determined Franchitti.

     With the win Franchitti recorded his first IRL Indy Car victory and first open wheel win since 2002 moving him into 6th in points. Kanaan still remains at the top of the leader board as far as the championship is concerned although Rice is beginning to close inch by inch; he moved into 2nd with Wheldon dropping to 3rd with his disappointing finish.

Results:

1. Dario Franchitti
2. Buddy Rice
3. Sam Hornish Jr.
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Vitor Meira
6. Townsend Bell
7. Alex Barron
8. Adrian Fernandez
9. Bryan Herta
10. Kosuke Matsuura
11. Ed Carpenter
12. Helio Castroneves
13. Felipe Giaffone
14. Mark Taylor
15. Scott Sharp
16. A.J. Foyt IV
17. Jaques Lazier
18. Dan Wheldon
19. Darren Manning
20. Tora Takagi
21. Tomas Scheckter
22. Scott Dixon (DNS)