Dario Franchitti waves to the crowd after winning the 96th Indianapolis… (Jonathan Ferrey / Getty…)
INDIANAPOLIS -- It would be convenient and sentimental to say that Dario Franchitti's third Indianapolis 500 win was a fitting result, seeing as it came with the race celebrating the late driver Dan Wheldon, who was one of Franchitti's best friends.
But appropriate or not, the outcome was in doubt until the final lap Sunday, when Franchitti prevailed only after a thrilling spree of lead changes among several drivers, the likes of which the legendary race hadn't seen for more than half a century.
Franchitti had to hold off one last pass attempt on the final lap, by Japanese driver Takuma Sato, who tried to slip past him on the inside of Turn 1 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
PHOTOS: 2012 Indy 500 in pictures
Sato, who drives for a team co-owned by 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal and television personality David Letterman, was pinched to the track's edge as he pulled alongside Franchitti. Sato spun out and smacked the wall as Franchitti sped ahead.
That instantly brought out the caution flag that froze the field, and Franchitti (pronounced fran-KEE-tee) had his third Indy 500 victory to add to his 2007 and 2010 wins. He became the seventh three-time winner in the 96-year history of the event.
"It was a crazy race," said Franchitti, 39, who also is the reigning Izod IndyCar Series champion and married to actress Ashley Judd. "I had a good car and was able to time the passes."
Scott Dixon, the Indy 500 winner in 2008 and Franchitti's teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, finished second after repeatedly swapping the lead with Franchitti over the final 40 laps.
Veteran Tony Kanaan, still looking for his first Indy 500 win, finished third after leading briefly near the end. Oriol Servia was fourth and pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe fifth.
Franchitti, a Scottish driver of Italian descent, also overcame an early problem in the pits when his car was struck from behind by E.J. Viso's. That sent Franchitti's car into the pit wall and crumpled its nose. Franchitti dropped out of the top 20 after repairs and had to fight his way back to the lead.
Wheldon, a stylish British driver who often wore white-framed sunglasses, won the Indy 500 for the second time a year ago but was killed at age 33 in a racing crash in October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In his honor, this year's Indy 500 tickets featured Wheldon's image and the speedway handed out white paper sunglasses to the more than 200,000 spectators on a day when the temperature reached 91 degrees, one degree short of the race record.
Fans wore the sunglasses in tribute during a pre-race parade lap and on Laps 26 and 98 — the numbers of the cars Wheldon drove when he won his two Indy 500s.
Franchitti wore them too as he doused himself with the traditional bottle of milk in Victory Lane and kissed the yard of bricks — a holdover from the track's old surface — at the start-finish line.
"The thing that really got me was the love that the fans showed for Dan," Franchitti said, noting that Wheldon's widow, Susie, also was in attendance.
"Vegas was the lowest of the low," he said. Then, after taking a deep breath, Franchitti added: "I think the reason we all got back in the cars . . . is days like today. There's not a feeling like standing in Victory Lane."
The series this year is using a newly designed race car and teams can now choose engines from three providers: Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus.
Ganassi stuck with Honda, which previously was the series' sole engine provider, and other top teams such as Team Penske went mostly with Chevrolet.
Until this weekend, it appeared Ganassi's cars were short on speed. While Chevy drivers took the top six spots in qualifying, Dixon and Franchitti qualified a middling 15th and 16th, respectively.
Ganassi's cars eventually found the speed they needed — the two drivers were fastest in the final practice Friday — and they were dueling for the lead as the raced neared its end.
But as they started the final lap, Sato shot past Dixon and then tried to pass Franchitti a moment later.
"I was going for the win," said Sato, who finished 17th. "But [Franchitti] kept pushing and didn't give me enough room. I had nowhere to go."
Franchitti politely disagreed, saying "I didn't squeeze him down" and that Sato "did everything right until he lost the rear end of the car" and spun out.
Regardless, the race featured a record 34 lead changes, breaking the previous high of 29 set in 1960.