IRL: Round 15 – Meijer Indy 300, Kentucky Speedway – August 9

Helio Castroneves very nearly pulled off an upset win at Kentucky this week – only for his fuel load to be half a lap short and to end up seeing his championship arch rival Scott Dixon steal it in the final few hundred meters.

To be fair, it was the right result: Dixon had been at or near the front all race and clearly had one of if not the best cars on the day. Only Marco Andretti seemed consistently able to bring the fight to the Kiwi, and Marco led for some 38 laps mid-race when Dixon got caught up behind a backmarker emerging from the pits on lap 98 and had to slow up, allowing Marco to blast past on his favoured outside line.

Castroneves on the other hand was having a very middling day, sinking down the running order to run a non-descript 9th or 10th place for much of the day. However, the Penske team took the gamble of bringing him in on lap 57 at the very end of a lengthy caution period, hoping for more yellows to help them stretch the fuel all the way to the chequered flag.

It was always a high risk gambit, as it put Castroneves down to 14th place. But as the other cars that had pitted earlier on came in one by one for their splash and dash stops, so Helio moved closer and closer to the front until finally with seven laps to go Dixon himself came in, going 6s down and surrendering the lead to Castroneves. He did at least emerge back in second, having leap-frogged Marco Andretti once more.

Helio was as leaned off as it was possible to be, and backmarkers were sailing past him, until finally his spotter came on the radio: “You gotta go, you gotta go,” they kept urging him. But as much as they screamed, there was no response: the No. 3 Team Penske Honda/Dallara lost fuel pressure between Turns 3 and 4 on the final lap. “At that point, I saw the lights on the dash and they were all lit,” Castroneves said. “The fuel meter was off a little bit, but it wasn’t off so far that I expected to get to the finish line first.

“The car misfired,” Castroneves continued. “If you keep your foot on the throttle, the engine won’t respond because it’s trying to suck more fuel and there’s nothing there. What you try to do is lift a little bit to make sure you keep some revs. That’s what I did. When it coughed, I kept trying to step on and off to see if I could get more fuel. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

“We took a chance. I still can’t believe how close we were. We were just a few hundred yards short.”

DIxon flashed past and took the win, making his championship points lead all-but-unbeatable. “That view is pretty sweet,” Dixon said. “Coming through Turns 3 and 4 and watching Helio run out of fuel with a few hundred feet to go was pretty special. I must say it’s nice to be in that position.

“Obviously a 78-point lead is pretty healthy, but we’re going to have to still try to gain points on Helio,” Dixon added afterwards. “We need an 82-point lead to have it sewn up after (the next race at) Sonoma. That would be nice, but in all reality I think we’ll be battling for the championship to the last race.”

Helio’s gambit had at least won him second place, with just enough pace to hold off Marco in third and a strong run from Vitor Meira for fourth. “My car was just a little too loose on the last stint to make the move,” Meira said. “We planned on it cooling down late in the race, and we knew we would be money on the last 50 laps.”

The race was quick, clean and relatively incident free. Will Power understeered into the wall on lap 2 which brought out a brief caution, and Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher had contact mid-race, but the only other yellow flag incident was Mika Duno’s big smash into the wall on lap 131 after a mechanical failure. Other drivers – including Graham Rahal on lap 28, Justin Wilson, Marty Roth, Darren Manning and Hideki Mutoh – had quiet retirements back in the pits.

For an official ‘night’ race, the sun was conspicuous in hanging around well until the end.

Pos  Driver             Team                 Time
 1.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi              1:36:42.3467
 2.  Helio Castroneves  Penske               +     0.5532
 3.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green       +     0.5707
 4.  Vitor Meira        Panther              +     0.9102
 5.  Dan Wheldon        Ganassi              +     2.1472
 6.  Ed Carpenter       Vision               +     5.9531
 7.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske               +     6.2271
 8.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green       +     7.0932
 9.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Rahal Letterman      +    10.9526
10.  Buddy Rice         Dreyer & Reinbold    +    21.6858
11.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green       +     1 lap
12.  Oriol Servia       KV                   +     1 lap
13.  E.J. Viso          HVM                  +     2 laps
14.  Bruno Junqueira    Dale Coyne           +     2 laps
15.  Sarah Fisher       Fisher               +     2 laps
16.  Jaime Camara       Conquest             +     3 laps
17.  Mario Moraes       Dale Coyne           +     5 laps
18.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green       +    43 laps
19.  Darren Manning     Foyt                 +    53 laps
20.  A.J. Foyt IV       Vision               +    64 laps
21.  Milka Duno         Dreyer & Reinbold    +    70 laps
22.  Enrique Bernoldi   Conquest             +    76 laps
23.  Marty Roth         Roth                 +   102 laps
24.  Justin Wilson      Newman/Haas/Lanigan  +   118 laps
25.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan  +   172 laps
26.  Will Power         KV                   +   195 laps

Championship standings:

1.  Scott Dixon         558     Gap to Leader
2.  Helio Castroneves   480      -78
3.  Dan Wheldon         420     -138
4.  Tony Kanaan         411     -147
5.  Ryan Briscoe        350     -208
6.  Danica Patrick      315     -243
7.  Marco Andretti      311     -247
8.  Ryan Hunter-Reay    298     -260
9.  Hideki Mutoh        298     -260
10. Oriol Servia        298     -260
11. Ed Carpenter        282     -276
12. Vitor Meira         275     -283
13. Will Power          267     -291
14. Darren Manning      267     -291
15. Buddy Rice          265     -293
16. Justin Wilson       249     -309
17. Graham Rahal        235     -323
18. E.J. Viso           234     -324
19. A.J. Foyt IV        231     -327
20. Enrique Bernoldi    208     -350
21. Bruno Junqueira     205     -353
22. Mario Moraes        197     -361
23. Jaime Camara        140     -418
24. Marty Roth          137     -421
25. Milka Duno          112     -446
26. Townsend Bell       105     -453
27. Mario Dominguez      98     -460
28. Jay Howard           72     -486
29. John Andretti        71     -487
30. Franck Perera        56     -502
31. Tomas Scheckter      34     -524
32. Paul Tracy           32     -526
33. Sarah Fisher         25     -533

Next event: the Indy Grand Prix, Infineon Raceway, on Sunday August 24.

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