(EDDIE PELLS/AP) INDIANAPOLIS — Dario Franchitti drove 199 nearly flawless laps, then survived the last one with a huge break from a spectacular crash to climb back on top of the open-wheel world Sunday with his second win at the Indianapolis 500.
Two years removed from a failed try in NASCAR, Franchitti held on with a scant 1.6 gallons of fuel left in the tank – a victory made possible by a crash that sent Mike Conway airborne and into the wall, and left the final lap to be run under a caution flag.
"Still running," the winner told his crew over the radio as he crossed the finish line, while wreckers were moving out to scoop up debris from Conway's accident with Ryan Hunter-Reay.
The victory made Franchitti's boss, Chip Ganassi, the first owner to win Indy and NASCAR's Daytona 500 in the same year. It also validated the Scottish driver's return to the IndyCar circuit two years after celebrating his 2007 Indy victory by making an unsuccessful move with Ganassi to NASCAR.
England's Dan Wheldon, the 2005 winner who closed furiously as Franchitti slowed to save fuel in the final laps, was second, and fellow Brit Alex Lloyd was third, followed by Scott Dixon in fourth.
Conway, who waved to the crowd as he was being taken off the track, was airlifted to the hospital with a broken leg.
Pole-sitter Helio Castroneves saw his quest for a record-tying fourth Indy victory come to an end with an uncharacteristic mistake – stalling out while leaving the pits on the 146th lap. It left him in need of a yellow-flag miracle at the end that never came, and he finished ninth after one last pit stop on the 193rd lap.
Danica Patrick picked and poked her way from 23rd to finish fifth despite a balky car that she had complained about in qualifying.
Patrick never found her comfort zone in the 88-degree weather – at one point saying she wished she could make up as much time on the track as in the pits – but she was patient and disciplined and now has three top-five finishes in six years.
Tony Kanaan finished 11th after moving from 33rd and last to as high as second. His chances of becoming the first driver in the 94 years of the race to go from worst to first ended when he had to go to the pits for a splash of fuel with four laps to go.
Franchitti's crew, meanwhile, started pressing their driver to conserve fuel with about 15 laps left. He did as he was told, and after leading 154 of the first 199 laps at speeds of up to 224.287 mph, he slowed steadily – to 210 mph, then 209 and 206.
Wheldon started bearing down, putting himself in position to make the last lap of the Indy 500 the first lap he had led all year on the circuit.
That's when the cars behind them went flying.
With the yellow flag out, Franchitti's wife, actress Ashley Judd, put her hand over her head, hoping her man had enough fuel to make it. He did, and was on his way to a milk mustache in Victory Lane. Franchitti's other Indy victory came in a race shortened to 166 laps because of rain.
Ganassi won his fourth Indy and has one of those few pieces of history that aren't owned by racing's most successful owner, Roger Penske, who had an unusually bewildering day in his quest for a 16th Indy victory day.
More than an hour before Castroneves stalled in pit road, teammate Will Power's crew left part of the fuel rig in his tank – a costly mistake that forced Power to take a penalty run through pit road and dropped him out of the top five.
And moments after Castroneves' error, his other teammate, Ryan Briscoe, careened into the wall and out of the race while Penske, The Captain, looked on – hand on hip, seemingly amazed at how his smooth-running machine fell so far, so fast.
This was part of an overall sloppy day at "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing," which featured nine caution periods, including one when Davey Hamilton, the oldest driver in the race, crashed before the drivers made it out of Turn 2 on the first lap.
Dixon, Franchitti's teammate, lost his left front tire coming out of pit road. Raphael Matos, who got to second early in the race, dropped back when his right rear tire came off – then went out when he hit the wall on lap 72.
Power crept his way back into the top five briefly, but another pit-road mix-up cost him time. The 29-year-old Australian, first before the race in the IndyCar standings, finished eighth.
Marco Andretti started 16th and briefly moved to second thanks in part to his early use of the speed-boosting "push to pass" button that was making its Indy debut this year. But without as good a car as the leaders, he fell back to sixth.
Nobody ran a cleaner, more tactically superior race than Franchitti. He had the third-fastest car in qualifying, which also helped, as did a little bit of racin' luck at the end – the kind that has come to him much more easily in the open-wheel world than in his half-year in NASCAR in 2008.
He returned to IRL last year and won the title in the season's last race with a similarly clever fuel-conservation tactic in a race that went 300 miles without a caution.
That was sweet. Winning the big one is sweeter.
He's back home again in Indiana – and back in Victory Lane in Indy.
PHOTOS: Ashley Judd celebrates with her husband.