- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Dario Franchitti knows as well as anyone that timing is everything.
The four-time Izod IndyCar Series champion may be peaking at the right time, because after 10 days of struggles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Franchitti paced the final practice session for the 2012 Indianapolis 500 (ABC coverage begins Sunday, 11 a.m. ET).
Franchitti, who is a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and his Ganassi Racing teammates were never a factor throughout practice and qualifying for Sunday's race. The 39-year-old Scotsman will line up in 16th place.
But Friday, in the traditional final Carb Day prep session, Franchitti and Target-sponsored teammate Scott Dixon were the class of the 33-car field. They were the only drivers to top 222 mph, with Franchitti's 222.360 mph lap edging Dixon's 222.274 mph effort.
Franchitti admitted that he achieved 222 with the benefit of a "big draft," but also revealed that he was relieved to be back in the mix after a challenging lead-up to the race.
"One of our first worries was to see if we have a fast car, and I think we've done that after our struggles in qualifying," he said. "We've got a new Honda engine in there that seems a good bit better. It would have been nice to have those gains in qualifying!
"This was just a practice, but the car did feel better as far as speed," Franchitti added. "The balance has been the same all month -- pretty good. The challenge on Sunday is going to be the heat. I think the track is going to get as slippery as it's ever been."
Temperatures topped out in the mid-80s on Friday, and conditions could be as much as 10 degrees hotter for the race.
"It's pretty slick out there, so just getting the balance of the car right is going to be pretty tough on Sunday," Franchitti said. "There are a lot of guys sliding around. It's gonna be a handful in traffic all day long and a challenge for all the drivers and the 33 pit crews to come up with the best answers for the race and not make any mistakes in the heat."
Dixon was also in better spirits than he was after qualifying, when he managed a disappointing 15th place.
The car felt good. It's nice to get out there and know you've got a decent car you can trust. The balance in traffic was good so I'm happy about that and the speed showed a little bit better. That's encouraging, but you still don't know what everyone else is up to. I just hope we've closed the gap a bit and can give the Chevys a good race on Sunday.
”-- Scott Dixon
"I do feel better, but we've got a little bit of work to do still," said Dixon, the 2008 IndyCar Series champion and Indy 500 winner. "The car felt good. It's nice to get out there and know you've got a decent car you can trust. The balance in traffic was good so I'm happy about that and the speed showed a little bit better. That's encouraging, but you still don't know what everyone else is up to.
"I just hope we've closed the gap a bit and can give the Chevys a good race on Sunday."
After Chevrolet dominated qualifying, claiming nine of the top 10 places on the grid, Honda fought back on Carb Day with four of the fastest six speeds.
Pole man Briscoe found his speed late in the hourlong session, reaching 221.025 mph on the 51st lap of the 53 laps he turned.
"We actually had to adjust the car a lot during that session," said Briscoe. "We needed the full hour of running, and we made a lot of changes. We just kept tuning so it was good. It was warm and humid, very much like race day will be, and everyone was finding the traffic and big speeds."
But Franchitti said the real form guide for the race won't be known until after the green flag is waved.
"We've still got a bit of work to do my engineer, Chris Simmons, just told me he's gonna have a couple of sleepless nights figuring out the last little bit," Franchitti said. "It's not a matter of being comfortable; we're just in the ballpark now as far as speed is concerned. We'll see what everybody has got Sunday, probably about halfway through the race. I don't think there will be sandbagging, but people will be taking it easy for that first half and then turn it up and see what they've got.
"I try not to predict what's going to happen because I'll end up with egg on my face," he added. "But if that result we got today is still the same on Sunday, we'll be happy. I think it will be a worthy winner on Sunday."