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RICHMOND, Va. -- Dario Franchitti surprised himself when he passed teammate Tony Kanaan on a restart 71 laps into the race Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
"That's when I really knew the car was exceptional," the Scotsman said.
That's also when the SunTrust Indy Challenge effectively ended.
For the second consecutive week, this year's Indianapolis 500 winner led the most laps on a short track. But unlike last Sunday at the new Iowa Speedway, Franchitti didn't emerge victorious from a wild, crash-filled race.
This one was a drop-the-hammer rout, the kind never seen before in the IndyCar Series. Franchitti's 242 laps led set a series record, topping the 224 led by Buddy Lazier in 2001, also at Richmond.
There was no running and hiding on the three-quarter-mile oval with traffic aplenty, but the Andretti Green Racing veteran came close at times in building leads of as much as 3.5 seconds.
Scott Dixon of Ganassi Racing came closest to Franchitti, but he couldn't get closer than four-tenths of a second in the closing laps before the final yellow. On a restart with seven laps to go, Franchitti bolted one more time, and all Dixon could do was hold on for second, with teammate Dan Wheldon following behind in third.
"I think we had the better car, but it was just track position all night," Dixon said. "From what I could tell, it was really hard to get close to the car in front of you."
Franchitti's weekend, in which he extended his series points lead to 65 over Dixon and notched his seventh IndyCar win, started going his way Friday. He wasn't in love with his car in race setup during practice, but then got the gift of not having to worry about fighting traffic early. With qualifying rained out, the field reverted to points and Franchitti got the pole.
He reported being "pleasantly surprised" when leading in the early laps, even waving off a wing adjustment planned for his first pit stop. Kanaan, in the stall behind Franchitti, had his service completed first and peeled out in front, but Franchitti negated that on the restart.
Everything else in the race from that point was secondary. There was Sam Hornish Jr., spinning out at the start of the race and trying to fight his way back the rest of the night, which later was to the chagrin of Dixon.
"Sam was trying to pass the leader two laps [down]. It was frustrating because it was obvious that, basically to try to make a pass, when you're down for the lead, he just took that away," Dixon said.
Hornish finished 15th, and his Team Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves, also finished off the pace, one lap down in 11th. He was given a drive-through penalty at Lap 170 for passing Franchitti under caution, a baffling penalty to the Penske crew, which thought Castroneves had been denied the right to a pit stop.
"It's a big enough penalty that they didn't tell us we could stop, then we blend [back onto the track under caution] and they tell us we have a pit violation," said Tim Cindric, Castroneves' race strategist. "It's amateur."
|Tony Kanaan, left, congratulates teammate Dario Franchitti after Saturday's win.|
Milka Duno made an early exit from the race after being scored for 79 laps, citing a sore elbow, and Rahal Letterman Racing's Jeff Simmons had the night's big accident, hitting the wall at the exit of Turn 2.
Throughout all that, Franchitti was blissfully in front, working his Dallara-Honda through the bullring with ease. He shrugged off the concept of point racing late Saturday night, but the reality is the championship is now his to lose with the season hitting its midway point after Lap 125 at Richmond.
Now the schedule turns in Franchitti's favor, too, with half of the remaining eight races on road and street courses, starting next week at Watkins Glen, N.Y. Winding layouts were where he cut his racing teeth growing up in Europe.
"It's really my passion to do road course racing, and I love it," Franchitti said. "But it doesn't necessarily mean I'll go out there and be up front. We haven't won one yet."
Of course, he hadn't won Indianapolis, either. Nor had he won back-to-back IndyCar Series races or three in one season. Franchitti has all that now, plus a championship that's his to lose.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.