IRL: Round 18 – PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300 – Sun Sep 7

The newly reunified IRL series kept its best for last, with the final championship event being the best oval outing of the year – and culminating in the all-time closest finish the series has ever seen or likely ever will.

Helio Castroneves had to work his way through the pack from the very back of the field, but he did so with efficiency and a great deal of help from terrific pit stops from his Penske crew.

By lap 85, after the second round of stops, Helio was at the front of the race. He was doing all he could to take the title – now he needed chief championship rival Scott Dixon to finish lower than eighth.

From then until the next yellow there were a couple of dozen breathless laps, as first Ryan Briscoe and then Dan Wheldon joined Helio Castroneves so that they were running lap after lap three wide. The lead changed so often and so continuously during this period that such statistics became impossible to keep, and basically meaningless. All you could do was watch in awe.

The cars in 4th, 5th and 6th were doing likewise and the whole of the top ten were covered by less than a second. It was spellbinding stuff, an accident surely waiting to happen, but it never did – testament to some huge skill on everyone’s part. But Scott Dixon was certainly thinking that discretion was the better part of valour at this point and held back down in 10th just in case the cars in front took each other out.

And this was only halfway. It felt more like the final few laps before the chequered, such was the intensity and passion of the drivers out there. When the face-off was finally brought to a close by a yellow (for debris after Oriel Servia’s wing mirror flew off), everyone was able to breath again.

Almost all the pit stops today took place under yellow, as there were plenty of cautions. Ed Carpenter was first, when something seemed to snap underneath the car, the underside of which hit the concrete and sent the car sailing off into a heavy and fiery impact with the wall on lap 36.

Vitor Meira was next to make impact with the wall on lap 74, and Sarah Fisher made a heavy impact herself on lap 116 and was seen hobbling for the car, with some leg or ankle injury. EJ Viso exited on lap 136 courtesy of a puncture, and Mario Moraes skimmed the wall on lap 177 sufficiently to transfer white paint onto the tyres and bring out the final yellow of the day as he limped back to the pits.

Tomas Scheckter retired on lap 87 with floor damage caused by debris, while the last man out was AJ Foyt IV, who spun across the grass on the final lap just as the leaders were making it to the chequered flag.

The oddest retirement of the way actually happened in the pits, when Buddy Rice was hit exiting his pit box by Graham Rahal. Despite the contact looking relatively innocuous and low-speed it did extensive damage to Rice’s rear suspension that crumpled and collapsed as if it had made a trip to a compressor. Rahal received a penalty for the incident.

But back to the front, and the battle for the championship. After those three-wide laps mid-race, Helio settled into the lead but Dixon worked his way up into third – good enough to secure the title whatever Helio did. And in the final round of pit stops, Ganassi’s pit crew – that had fumbled an earlier stop and put Dixon down several places and come close to incurring a drive-thru penalty for a stray tyre – pulled off a blinder and popped their man out on track first ahead of Helio.

Now all he had to do was hold it there for the final dozen laps.

Dixon clearly relished running in front after playing it safe and running in the pack for most of the race. The laps he led here, added to the others he’s led in 2008, broke the record for the total number of laps led in one IRL season.

As the white flag came out, Helio prepared for one last push, with his team mate Briscoe right behind doing whatever he could to help ‘push’ Helio ahead of Scott. The finish line flew and to the naked eye it was a dead heat. The transponders awarded it to Dixon – but the photo finish showed it was actually Castroneves who cros the line first, by mere inches, and they were able to fix the time difference at an incredible 0.0033 of a second. The closest finish ever, and hard to believe it will ever be any closer; and just 4s covered the whole of the top 12, showing it was no two-horse race.

It was a great win for Castroneves, and to his credit looked completely delighted and was looking for a fence to climb – despite having just ceded the championship. But it was only just that Dixon should win the IRL championship after equalling the number of races won in a single IRL season. And it makes up some way for the heartbreak of losing out on the final lap of 2007 to Dario Franchitti – who will be his 2009 team mate at Ganassi.

Dan Wheldon had been a serious challenge for most of the race, as if making a point about being dumped by the team in favour of Franchitti. But he haded to 6th in the end and was overtaking by a charging Will Power, one of the best of the Champ Car transfers. Power will be looking forward to Surfer’s PAradise in his home country of Australia, although sadly it’s an exhibition event and demoted from the championship proper.

But all signs point to a thrilling season next year. And surely with this race we can finally celebrate the reunification of IRL and Champ Car and lay to rest the history of that sad split, and look to the future.

Pos  Driver             Team                  Time
 1.  Helio Castroneves  Penske                200 laps
 2.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi              +  0.0010
 3.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske               +  0.0788
 4.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green       +  0.6095
 5.  Will Power         KV                   +  1.3580
 6.  Dan Wheldon        Ganassi              +  1.8729
 7.  Darren Manning     Foyt                 +  2.3224
 8.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green       +  2.4627
 9.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Rahal Letterman      +  2.7993
10.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green       +  2.9276
11.  Justin Wilson      Newman/Haas/Lanigan  +  3.0218
12.  Alex Tagliani      Conquest             +  4.2072
13.  AJ Foyt IV         Vision               +   1 lap
14.  Milka Duno         Dreyer & Reinbold    +   1 lap
15.  Franck Perera      Foyt                 +  2 laps
16.  Marty Roth         Roth                 +  3 laps
17.  Oriol Servia       KV                   +  4 laps
18.  Jaime Camara       Conquest             + 13 laps
19.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan  + 14 laps
20.  Bruno Junqueira    Dale Coyne           + 16 laps
21.  Mario Moraes       Dale Coyne           + 19 laps
22.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green       + 23 laps
23.  EJ Viso            HVM                  + 64 laps
24.  Sarah Fisher       Sarah Fisher         + 84 laps
25.  Buddy Rice         Dreyer & Reinbold    + 90 laps
26.  Tomas Scheckter    Luczo Dragon         +113 laps
27.  Vitor Meira        Panther              +126 laps
28.  Ed Carpenter       Vision               +164 laps

Final championship standings

1.  Scott Dixon         646     Leader
2.  Helio Castroneves   629     -17
3.  Tony Kanaan         513     -133
4.  Dan Wheldon         492     -154
5.  Ryan Briscoe        447     -199
6.  Danica Patrick      379     -267
7.  Marco Andretti      363     -283
8.  Ryan Hunter-Reay    360     -286
9.  Oriol Servia        358     -288
10. Hideki Mutoh        346     -300
11. Justin Wilson       340     -306
12. Will Power          331     -315
13. Vitor Meira         324     -322
14. Darren Manning      323     -323
15. Ed Carpenter        320     -326
16. Buddy Rice          306     -340
17. Graham Rahal        288     -358
18. E.J. Viso           286     -360
19. A.J. Foyt IV        280     -366
20. Bruno Junqueira     256     -390
21. Mario Moraes        244     -402
22. Enrique Bernoldi    220     -426
23. Jaime Camara        174     -472
24. Marty Roth          166     -480
25. Milka Duno          140     -506
26. Townsend Bell       117     -529
27. Mario Dominguez     112     -534
28. Jay Howard          72      -574
29. Franck Perera       71      -575
30. John Andretti       71      -575
31. Tomas Scheckter     66      -580
32. Sarah Fisher        37      -609
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