INDIANAPOLIS — It's rare in racing when everything aligns to create a breathtaking event, the kind that's certain to be talked about through the years and recalled as one of the best.
IndyCar hit the jackpot with the Indianapolis 500: a record number of lead changes, a thrilling final dash for the trophy, a popular podium finish and 500 miles of racing under a blistering sun.
"What a tremendous race. We couldn't have asked for anything better for our marquee event," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said Monday. "It had the right the mix of competition and entertainment as we showcased our sport on an international stage. Hopefully, people liked what they saw, learned what we already know and will come back for more this season."
That's the hard sell for the attention-starved series. Despite good racing, strong story lines and colorful characters, IndyCar can't seem to grow its fan base. The overnight rating for Sunday's race on ABC was a 4.1, smack in the middle of the 4.3 from last year and the 4.0 in 2010.
But there's enough buzz now that IndyCar is optimistic its fans will tune in next Sunday when the series shifts to a street course for the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. The race, the first open-wheel championship event in Detroit since 2008, will again be on ABC.
"I hope people watch the other races and see what we do week in and week out," said Dario Franchitti, who picked up his third Indianapolis 500 victory on Sunday. "The crowds have been good, and obviously we need to keep working on the TV thing, keep pushing on that. But we've had some cracking races this year. I think they've all been pretty good."
This Indy 500 swung the pendulum on an already strong start to the season. Franchitti and teammate Scott Dixon swapped the lead 10 times in the final 60 laps, and Tony Kanaan used a jaw-dropping surge through the field to jump from fifth to first on a late restart. The popular Brazilian led seven late laps in front of a crowd roaring its approval.
On Franchitti's final pass of Dixon, he pulled Takuma Sato with him and the Japanese driver wedged himself between the Chip Ganassi teammates. It prevented Dixon from setting up his attempted pass for the win. The opportunity instead went to Sato, who went for it in dramatic fashion.
Sato hugged the bottom of the race track, pulled alongside Franchitti through the first turn, but failed to complete the pass either because their wheels touched or he simply bungled the move. He spun hard into the outside wall, barely avoiding wrecking Franchitti at the same time, and the Scotsman broke free for the win.
The final finishing order, Franchitti first, Dixon second and Kanaan third, marked a 1-2-3 finish for the three drivers closest to the late Dan Wheldon. The entire race was a tribute to Wheldon, the 2011 winner who was killed in last season's finale, and it was an emotional and fitting finish for his friends.
"Definitely thought Dan was having a laugh somewhere, watching us race each other so hard," Franchitti said.
The win made Franchitti just the 10th driver to win three or more Indy 500s, and gave him his 31st career victory. With one more victory — it could come Sunday at Belle Isle, where he has a win and four top-four finishes in six career starts — Franchitti moves into seventh place on the win list behind the three Unsers, two Andrettis and A.J. Foyt, the career leader.
But the victory also jump-started the season for the four-time series champion, who had struggled with IndyCar's new car in the first four races. It allowed rival Will Power to build a healthy lead in the point standings while establishing Penske Racing as the dominant team this season. Power and teammate Helio Castroneves combined to win the first four races. And with Chevrolet power, Penske drivers have won all five poles this year.
Now the Honda teams, aided perhaps by an IndyCar ruling that Chevrolet protested because it gave the manufacturer help with its turbocharger, seem to be back in the mix.
Indianapolis also introduced some new faces to the audience, starting with James Hinchcliffe, a charming young Canadian who replaced Danica Patrick in the most visible ride in the series. His first national commercial, starring with Patrick in a Go Daddy ad, aired during Sunday's race.
There was Marco Andretti, who despite his famous last name has yet to catch the fancy of the American public, losing a race he thought was his to win. Frustrated when his handling fell off, he provided colorful radio chatter that NASCAR fans likened to the notorious Kurt Busch.
And it was a first-time meeting with Josef Newgarden, a 21-year-old from Tennessee who was fast all month at Indy and showed there are indeed young American drivers coming through the pipeline.
So maybe IndyCar picked up some new fans Sunday, or at least a few curious passers-by willing to give the series a second look.
"I think the entertainment value is definitely there," Franchitti said. "We are putting on a good show, regardless of it's a street course, a road course, an oval, a short oval, here at Indianapolis. They are all great races."
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