INDIANAPOLIS - Scott Dixon stayed ahead of the trouble, got a boost from his crew, and drove to his first Indianapolis 500 victory yesterday.
Dixon sped out of the pits ahead of Vitor Meira on the final round of stops, then held off the Brazilian and hard-luck Marco Andretti to win the first 500 since the two warring open-wheel series came together under the IndyCar banner.
Danica Patrick failed to finish for the first time in four trips to Indy, although it wasn't her fault. She was clipped on pit road by Ryan Briscoe with 29 laps to go, breaking the left rear suspension on a car that had run in the top 10 for most of the race but never seriously challenged for the lead. She finished 22d.
Patrick's mishap was one of numerous crashes and mechanical failures that slowed the race under the yellow caution flag eight times for a total of 69 laps. But Dixon, who started from the pole, clearly had the strongest car on the track.
"There were so many yellows," Dixon said, "it was really hard to get into a rhythm."
Meira, driving for the one-car, low-budget Panther Racing team, has never won an IndyCar race but finished runner-up in the biggest race of all for the second time in four years. He knew he was beaten by the better car.
"It's nice to see the fastest car win," said Meira, who finished 1.75 seconds behind.
Andretti appeared to knock teammate Tony Kanaan out of the race with an aggressive move just past the midway point, but all he got was another close call for a family that is now 1 for 57 at the Brickyard. The 21-year-old settled for third, while cousin John Andretti was 16th.
Dixon led for 115 of the 200 laps, and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dan Wheldon was out front for 30 more, backing up the speed they had shown all through the month of May.
"You're clear now!" Dixon's spotter screamed over the radio as the 27-year-old New Zealander cleared the last group of lapped cars with two turns to go. "Bring it home! Bring it home!"
For a while, it looked as though an Andretti might finally break through to give the star-crossed family its first Indy victory since grandfather Mario won in 1969. Instead, it was the eighth time Marco, father Michael or Mario finished second or third.
Andretti led twice for 15 laps, but Andretti Green Racing - co-owned by Michael - made a crucial miscalculation on its last pit stop. The team adjusted the rear wing, looking for more speed, but the No. 26 car wound up falling back in the closing laps after posting the fastest run of the day, more than 224 m.p.h., on Lap 161.
The race was marred by all sorts of crashes and miscues, two of them while the cars were running under the yellow. That held down the average winning speed to 143.567 m.p.h. and took out two of the most prominent drivers in Kanaan and Patrick.
Kanaan was leading on Lap 106 when Dixon surged past him right on the backstretch. Andretti dived to the inside, which appeared to catch his teammate off guard. Kanaan drifted high going into the third turn, scraped the outside wall, and turned into the path of Sarah Fisher, one of three women in the 33-car field.
Neither was hurt, but both were done for the day.
Patrick, who became a national phenomenon when she led late in the race and finished fourth as a rookie in 2005, had hoped to follow her first IndyCar victory, at Japan last month, with a win in the biggest race of all.
But she never made a serious run for the lead, complaining incessantly about an ill-handling car while talking with her crew over the radio. She started fifth, but quickly fell back and got no higher than sixth the rest of the day.
"I can't do anything!" she screamed during one tirade. "I am
! I am damn slow!"