INDIANAPOLIS - Scotland's Dario Franchitti won an emotionally charged 96th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday to join an elite band of drivers to win the 101-year-old race three times.
The 39-year-old Franchitti recovered after his car was damaged in a freak pit-lane incident in the early stages of the 200-lap race, then survived a last-lap tussle with Japan's Takuma Sato to add to his wins at the Brickyard in 2007 and 2010.
Franchitti's New Zealand team mate Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner, crossed the line second while Brazil's Tony Kanaan was third as the race finished under a yellow caution flag when Sato crashed on the last lap.
"This means the world, this is Indianapolis," said Franchitti. "To be on this trophy either side of Dan (Wheldon), that means more than anything."
Wheldon, one of Franchitti's closest friends, won the Indy 500 in dramatic circumstances last year but was killed in a season-ending race in Las Vegas.
Sunday's race was preceded by an emotional tribute to the popular Englishman. After the race, Franchitti embraced Wheldon's widow, Susie, who was present with her two sons.
"What a race. I think Dan Wheldon would be proud of this one," said Franchitti.
"Vegas last year was the lowest of the low but the reason we all got back in the cars, the reason the mechanics got back in pit lane, the reason why the fans came back to the races, is the emotion of days like today."
Franchitti became just the 10th driver with at three wins in the race, which was first held in 1911. Only A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, with four wins each, have been more successful in America's greatest motor race.
Franchitti was one of 10 drivers to lead Sunday's incident packed race which featured a record 35 lead changes and eight cautions, including one just before the end that resulted in a six-lap scramble to the chequered flag.
Ten of the original 33 starters were not running at the end of the three-hour event on a baking hot day where the temperatures rose to 91 degrees Fahrenheit (32.7 degrees Celsius), turning the race into a gruelling test of stamina for both the drivers and their cars.
While Franchitti enjoyed the spoils of victory, including the traditional kissing of the bricks and drenching himself in cold milk, plenty of other drivers had hard luck stories.
Australia's Will Power, the IndyCar series leader, retired after just 80 laps when Mike Conway, who had earlier run into one of his own mechanics in pit lane, spun in front of him.
Power did not have enough time to avoid a collision, which saw Conway's car frighteningly catapulted on to the wall. Both men walked away from the incident unharmed.
American Marco Andretti led the race for 59 laps, more than any other driver, but spun out near the end, while Dixon, who led for 53 laps, was unable to mount a last-lap charge when the caution flag was unfurled.
Sato, bidding to become the first Japanese driver to win the race, blew his chance of victory when he tried to cut inside Franchitti on the last lap.
But he went into the bend too low and spun wildly out of control, slamming into the outside wall.
"I was going for the win," Sato said. "I had a good tow from Dario and I thought I had the job done.
"But he kept pushing and didn't give me enough room."
Franchitti, who is married to Hollywood actress Ashley Judd, only narrowly avoided colliding with Sato and had another lucky escape during his first stop when he was hit in pit lane by EJ Viso.
Brazil's Rubens Barrichello, who moved to IndyCar this season after a long career in Formula One, came 11th, the best place of the seven rookies in the field.
"I didn't have many expectations," he said. "People were racing hard, it's just madness out there sometimes." (Editing by Gene Cherry)