HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Dario Franchitti was more than a mile behind Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon at times during last season's IndyCar Series finale, nearly an entire lap off the pace.
He couldn't have been happier.
Sounds bizarre, but even while facing a daunting 25-second deficit Franchitti could almost taste the champagne. He had done the math. His fuel saving was going perfectly. He was going to win the race, capture his second IndyCar championship and earn $1.17 million ... provided, of course, that a yellow flag didn't come out to wreck his plans.
"The ultimate strategy," Dixon would later say.
The ultimate reward, too.
The 2009 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway was memorable mainly for two reasons - it brought Franchitti a title, and it went down as the first IndyCar event in history to go start-to-finish without a caution flag. And when Franchitti returns to Homestead for this year's finale on Oct. 2, the memories of that glorious, yet strange, day a year ago will surely come flooding back.
Franchitti enters this year's finale trailing Will Power by 12 points, certainly far from an insurmountable deficit.
"We can only control what we do," Franchitti said.
But when everyone else remains in control - essentially what happened at Homestead in 2009 - the task of making up points could get much easier for Franchitti.
When Franchitti started last year's finale at Homestead four points behind Dixon and four points ahead of Briscoe in the super-tight race for the title, he took what might be considered a huge gamble. He saved fuel from the very beginning, coaxing more miles of out his tanks than Dixon and Briscoe did from theirs.
His plan was simple: If Dixon and Briscoe - the only other two contenders for the 2009 title - needed to pit four times, then he would try to finish 300 miles on only three stops for fuel. For the plan to work, he pretty much needed everything on-track to go right.
Somehow, it did.
"It was physically very difficult with no yellows," Franchitti said. "Our strategy, after the halfway point, it wouldn't have mattered if there were no yellows or not. We had used so little fuel in the first half of the race, that put us - what do they say, in the catbird's seat? If there had been a yellow, we would have had more fuel. We were always, from Lap 100 on, in a very good position."
For so many reasons, a yellow-free race was something that no one expected.
There had only been six IndyCar races with just one yellow flag, two of those coming earlier in 2009. But the series had never seen a caution-free race, and one surely wasn't expected at Homestead, where the combination of drivers vying for jobs in 2010 and grip being an issue throughout the week had plenty of people thinking there would be plenty of wrecks.
"Might be the first and last time it ever happens," Dixon said. "It was that odd. It's a strange thing and that obviously made it into the race it was. In hindsight, maybe we should have slowed down and saved fuel. But for me, it was one of those things you had to push. I think that's how you win championships and win races. We just took it the wrong way."
Two things were clear from the outset of last season's race at Homestead. One, none of the non-title-contenders in the field wanted to ruin anyone's championship chances. Two, those three cars weren't going to be caught by anyone regardless of strategy.
At the midway point of the 2009 race, Dixon, Briscoe and Franchitti were the only cars on the lead lap. They were that dominant, more than 15 mph faster than some cars on certain laps.
"Even when I crossed the line, I asked the question: 'Did Dario really win this race?'" Briscoe recalled. "We did everything perfect, just perfect. I was so bummed."
Although it went down as an incident-free race, that really wasn't the case. As Danica Patrick was trying to enter her pit, she got crashed into by Dan Wheldon with about 40 laps remaining. Had that happened on the track, everyone's strategy might have changed.
But since the track remained under green-flag racing, Franchitti remained in control.
"It was amazing, because the track was so slick," Briscoe said. "It was challenging and everyone did a great job to keep it off the wall. Why they chose that day. ... Last race of the year, a lot of people are fighting for rides for the next year. But I don't know if the focus for anyone was different at that race than any other."
Power watched from a hospitality suite in the Penske Racing area last season at Homestead, recovering from a crash at Sonoma that ended his season months earlier.
He hasn't had a taste of what it's like to race for a title at Homestead. Franchitti said he doesn't think that will matter.
"I think he will get up to speed very quickly. ... No reason why he can't do it at Homestead," Franchitti said. "We just have to make sure we beat him."