IRL: Round 16 – Indy Grand Prix, Infineon Raceway – Sun Aug 24

After the high drama leading up to this race – the incineration of Penske’s chassis and crucial equipment in a hauler fire – this week’s IRL race was remarkably free of incident. Especially given the dramatic shift it made in the 2008 championship standings.

Let’s be honest, “free of incident” is code for “stunningly dull”. Nothing much happened, which is an amazing feat for cars tearing around a tricky road course circuit at speeds nearing 200mph. But really – nothing much did.

The race’s dominant feature was pit strategy – and an amazing variety thereof. There were three main strategies: some drivers came in very early (including Vitor Meira, EJ Viso and Dan Wheldon); some improvised when a yellow came out on lap 16 for Marty Roth’s undramatic spin and stall (Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Justin Wilson all came in when the pits opened); and the remainder stayed out for as long as they could stretch the fuel, which meant pitting on lap 26 or 27 (Ryan Briscoe, Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan). And within these three basic themes there were all sorts of little variations.

Which was the right strategy? Hard to tell, because at the end is seems that the various runners were all jumbled up regardless – meaning it was more down to the individual driver and often pure luck as to who fared better. The different strategies simply obfuscated the basic comparison of performances and made it hard to tell what was going on.

Well, to a point. It was clear throughout that despite the devastating hauler fire mid-week, the Penske boys were doing the best of anyone – and that Helio Catroneves was by far the best of the best. Scott Dixon’s strategy seemed to be to copy everything Helio did – come in when Castroneves did, stay out when he did, and so on – and the difference in their final positions at the chequered flag speaks volumes as to how hugely well Helio did today. It would have been a travesty if anyone had come between him and his first win in 29 races (his first win since April 2007, which was even before his “Dancing with the Stars” victory) – fortunately, no one did.

Dixon, on the other hand, got stuck behind slower cars. The Ganassi team didn’t respond with amended strategies and left him to circulate around at reduced speed, meaning he lost considerable time to Helio in the mid section of the race. He would have finished even lower than 12th if Oriel Servia and Mario Dominquez hadn’t tangled and spun in front of him and given him two extra places for free, effectively.

“We just did absolutely nothing right,” Dixon said. “I don’t know why we stayed out when the car in front of us is three seconds slower and we can’t make up any track position. Everything we did was wrong. We lost a ton of points. This is a race that’s very tough. Unfortunately, we got the bad end of the stick.”

That difference in position has a huge impact on the IRL championship standings, though, allowing Castroneves to cut 35 points from his lead. Dixon now leads by 43 points with just two races remaining – Detroit and Chicago. “When you lose 35 points in one race, it makes it a lot easier for him to come back,” Dixon said. “It was definitely a bad day.”

Ryan Briscoe came second on a different strategy, one that required he save fuel, while Castroneves set his meter to rich and was pedalling hard. “I literally was at the limit of the car,” Castroneves said. “The good news is I never put a wheel off the asphalt. I never locked wheels. I was just pushing. It was an interesting situation. It paid off, and it was a lot of fun. Sometimes conserving fuel is the worst thing to do. We didn’t conserve fuel at all. We just kept pushing.”

Kanaan was on the same fuel conservation strategy as Briscoe, and made it work to his advantage to come in third ahead of Dan Wheldon. “It’s boring,” Kanaan said about the tactic. “I mean, racing is about going fast, not going slow. Obviously, you do whatever you can to finish on the podium, but people are telling you on the radio that you have to hit a certain fuel number. Drive slow, but be fast. Don’t get passed. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The only official retirement was Tomas Scheckter for mechanical problems on lap 56, although Will Power ended the race in the tyres of the chicane – which he had already failed to navigate around four times during the race, incurring a drive-thru penalty from the stewards as a result. Ed Carpenter also finished the race with a backwards trip across the gravel on what should have been his penultimate lap.

But the delay belonged to the likeable Brazilian, nicknamed “Spiderman” for his gimmick of climbing fences after a win. Sonoma perhaps wasn’t the best place for Helio to score his cmeback win, as it lacked an nearby scaleable fences. But Helio improvised by scaling the 9-foot fence at the finish line and getting mobbed by spectators thrilled to be in arms length of the winner.

Before the race, an ABC/ESPN cameraman asked Castroneves where he would celebrate, given the lack of the usual oval circuit catch fence. “I told them where I was going to go,” Castroneves said. “Ask the cameraman. He was like, ‘Hey, I don’t want to jinx it, but where are you going to be climbing the fence?’ I’m like, ‘Right there. Make sure you wait for me there.'”

They did. And he delivered.

Race results:

Pos  Driver             Team                 Time
 1.  Helio Castroneves  Penske               1:50:15.8282
 2.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske               +     5.2926
 3.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green       +    16.6032
 4.  Dan Wheldon        Ganassi              +    17.7720
 5.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green       +    25.8458
 6.  E.J. Viso          HVM                  +    29.3472
 7.  Vitor Meira        Panther              +    29.9895
 8.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan  +    40.4577
 9.  Justin Wilson      Newman/Haas/Lanigan  +    42.0357
10.  Mario Moraes       Dale Coyne           +    50.0106
11.  Buddy Rice         Dreyer & Reinbold    +    55.0361
12.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi              +    55.7145
13.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green       +    56.3186
14.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green       +    57.5400
15.  Oriol Servia       KV                   +    58.3690
16.  Mario Dominguez    Pacific Coast        +  1:00.7387
17.  Bruno Junqueira    Dale Coyne           +  1:00.9454
18.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Rahal Letterman      +  1:00.9466
19.  Townsend Bell      Dreyer & Reinbold    +     1 lap
20.  A.J. Foyt IV       Vision               +     1 lap
21.  Enrique Bernoldi   Conquest             +     1 lap
22.  Darren Manning     Foyt                 +     1 lap
23.  Ed Carpenter       Vision               +     2 laps
24.  Jaime Camara       Conquest             +     2 laps
25.  Will Power         KV                   +     3 laps
26.  Marty Roth         Roth                 +     4 laps
27.  Tomas Scheckter    Luczo Dragon         +    24 laps

Championship standings:

Pos Driver  Points
1   Scott Dixon         576
2   Hélio Castroneves   533
3   Dan Wheldon         452
4   Tony Kanaan         446
5   Ryan Briscoe        390
6   Danica Patrick      345
7   Marco Andretti      327
8   Hideki Mutoh        315
9   Oriol Servià        313
10  Ryan Hunter-Reay    310
11  Vitor Meira         301
12  Ed Carpenter        294
13  Buddy Rice          284
14  Darren Manning      279
15  Will Power          277
16  Justin Wilson       271
17  Ernesto Viso        262
18  Graham Rahal        259
19  A.J. Foyt IV        243
20  Enrique Bernoldi    220
21  Bruno Junqueira     218
22  Mário Moraes        217
23  Jaime Câmara        152
24  Marty Roth          147
25  Townsend Bell       117
26  Mario Dominguez     112
27  Milka Duno          112
28  Jay Howard           72
29  John Andretti        71
30  Franck Perera        56
31  Tomas Scheckter      44
32  Paul Tracy           32
33  Sarah Fisher         25
34  Roger Yasukawa       16
35  Davey Hamilton       16
36  Buddy Lazier         13
37  Jeff Simmons         10
37  Alex Lloyd           10

The IndyCar Series resumes next weekend with the Belle Isle Detroit Grand Prix. The Chicagoland season finale is set for September 7.

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