INDIANAPOLIS — The back seat of the convertible was just wide enough for a third passenger beside Dario Franchitti, the 39-year-old Scot who had just won his third Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, and Ashley Judd, the actor who is Franchitti's wife.
So they spontaneously invited Susie Wheldon, wearing white sunglasses, for Franchitti's victory lap.
Her husband and their friend, St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon, had won the Indy 500 only a year earlier, but was killed in a racing accident in October at Las Vegas.
"I tell you what: She's a stronger person than I am to come here," Franchitti said two hours later.
Though the temperature had topped 90 degrees, a large portion of the crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stayed to bathe the three in cheers as they passed. Las Vegas, Franchitti said, was the lowest of the lows. The victory lap was the reason he returns to the racetrack.
Franchitti, the 2007 and 2010 Indy champion, overcame a spin after his first pit stop that dropped him way down in the field, then won a exhilarating last-lap duel with Takuma Sato.
Sato tried to dart inside Franchitti's red Honda-powered car entering Turn 1 of the famous 21/2-mile oval, but Sato lost control, spun and thudded into the white outside wall. Franchitti kept his foot on the gas.
He won under caution, crossing the finish line ahead of Scott Dixon, his Chip Ganassi teammate, and gregarious Brazilian Tony Kanaan, who took the lead earlier with an audacious pass that carried him past four drivers. That was part of a daylong pattern that saw trailing drivers draft off of lead cars and fly by. Franchitti and Dixon alone traded the lead 10 times among themselves in the final 41 laps.
"We were like sitting ducks, man," Dixon said.
It was not lost on Franchitti that Dixon and Kanaan were also good friends with Wheldon, and he joked afterward that Wheldon would have laughed at these three drivers going at it.
"His three best friends were fighting for the win, odds are one of us would do it," Kanaan said. "I tried everything I could to do it. I haven't done it yet. To lose this one, like this, is an honor."
The love that the fans showed for Franchitti and Susie Wheldon on the victory lap got to him. Wheldon will not be forgotten, but it was as if a door had been closed, with a tight race won by a contemporary, rival and friend of Wheldon's.
"It meant a lot that Suze was able to come around with us today," Franchitti said.
It was Susie Wheldon's first trip to any race track since her husband's death. She watched from Dixon's pit stand with his wife, Emma.
Marco Andretti, with a Chevrolet engine, led a race-high 59 laps, all in the first half of the race. But he dropped back and for the most part the final 250 miles belonged to Honda, which looked awful in qualifying.
"There were a lot of unknowns going into today's race," Ganassi said. "It turned out the be what I thought, a great race. There was a hell of a lot of passing going on."
Sato, who drives for the team co-owned by 1986 Indy champion Bobby Rahal and late-night talk-show host David Letterman, was also in the mix through the late laps. When Franchitti passed Dixon for the lead with two laps left, Sato came with him and took second, setting up the dramatic ending. But Sato's final move didn't work in the end.
"You do not play Dario like that," Kanaan said of Sato. "He should know better than that."
Franchitti got through it, and later took another spin through Turn 1 at a much slower speed, on the back of that convertible with his wife and a special invited guest.
Dan Wheldon liked to wear white sunglasses, and Franchitti made sure to wear a pair, too.
"What a race! I think D-dub would be proud of that one."
Dario Franchitti on Dan Wheldon, who was honored by fans and drivers wearing his favored white sunglasses