IRL: Round 2 – Long Beach, California – April 19

Sometimes you need to be lucky rather than good to win a motor race. And of course, ideally you want to be both. In Long Beach, Dario Franchitti managed exactly that to record a well deserved yet still very lucky victory.

Will Power got off to a great start in Long Beach, dropping Franchitti who was caught napping and who was dropped to 4th place behind Raphael Matos and Justin Wilson. The good news is that, even on the incredibly tight and difficult Long Beach street circuit, everyone got through the first lap without incident for a change.

Franchitti recovered one of his lost positions on lap 5 with a nice move on Wilson, and then recovered second place on lap 15 with a similar move on Matos down the start/finish straight.

The following lap, Mike Conway ran into a tyre wall on turn 1 and stopped on circuit; anticipating a full course yellow, Franchitti pulled into the pit lane before the yellow could come out and the pits close; but there was no yellow, and Franchitti found himself dumped to the back of the pack.

But fortune smiled on Franchitti because the yellow came out on lap 17 instead for a strange accident sparked by Will Power suddenly losing pace (perhaps expecting a full course yellow himself?) and bunching up the surprised cars behind him. Scott Dixon swerved to avoid going into the back of Power and in so doing squeezed EJ Viso against the barrier; Viso was flipped into the air and then landed heavily, rolling into the escape road with damaged suspension that put him out of the race. This was too dangerous a situation to leave to local yellows, and the track went full caution.

While most drivers pitted, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Robert Doornbos all stayed out to take the top four positions at the restart on lap 21. Dario Franchitti was now in 7th, while Will Power was 10th just ahead of Helio Castroneves, Raphael Matos and Graham Rahal.

The race restarted on lap 21, but on lap 23 there was a major five car incident which started when Scott Dixon got into the back of Graham Rahal going into turns 10 and 11. They were okay, but the rest of the field behind them got compressed and suddenly Mario Moraes, Justin Wilson, Darren Manning, Dan Wheldon and Hideki Mutoh concertinaed into one another and completely blocked the track. A safety car – and a diversion – were a no brainer while the marshals pulled the cars about and refired the ones able to resume. Wilson was not able to restart, his rear right suspension collapsing as he made it make to the pits.

Now the cars that had stayed out before had their chance to pit, so that my lap 32 it was Franchitti in the lead a comfortable distance ahead of Danica Patrick, who had also preempted the first caution to perfection with an early pit stop. Behind them the running order consisted of Will Power in 3rd, Raphael Matos, Helio Castroneves and Graham Rahal.

Stanton Barrett went off on lap 36 at turn 9, and the marshalls – determined not to interrupt racing – went for a local yellow to recover the rookie. But on lap 39 Ed Carpenter crashed heavily into the tyres on lap 1 and blocked too much of the track to avoid the full course caution, and the yellows flew – a little too early to be of any use for pit stops to the front runners.

It was all coming down to fuel strategy, with the early stoppers like Franchitti and Patrick having to really stretch their fuel to avoid having to two-stop. Patrick and Will Power made it to the end of lap 51 – leaving just too far to the chequered flag if it went all green – while Franchitti made it a couple of more laps which was right on the cusp.

And fortune again smiled on Franchitti, because as he was exiting pit lane the yellows came out after Mike Conway made the intimate acquaintance of the tyre wall for the second time this afternoon. Now everyone who hadn’t already was streaming into the pits for their final stops of the afternoon.

Graham Rahal had a scary moment when he pulled away from his pit stop too early before the fuel hose was detached, knocking over a pit crew member and spilling fuel over the area, but fortunately a quick thinking crew member threw water over the ethanol spill and fire was averted. To rub salt into Rahal’s wound, he was sent to the back of the pack for his dangerous rule infraction.

So with the restart, Franchitti was once again back in front, now with Power in 2nd, Kanaan 3rd, Patrick 4th followed by Wheldon, Dixon and Briscoe. This time at the green flag it was Dario who got the flying start and left Will for dust – nice symmetry against the start of the race – pulling out ove a four second gap.

While it was plain sailing at the front for Franchitti, further back Ed Carpenter got thoroughly mugged and beaten around by several cars on lap 60 that put him down to 19th and sent him reeling into the pits for some TLC.

The yellow came out on lap 72 for Mario Moraes who had hit rumble strips going into turn 5, lost control of the car and plunged into the tyre wall at some speed, demolishing the tyre barrier that then collapsed over the car, firmly burying it and requiring a lot of work both to free the number 5 car and to rebuild the tyre wall for safety reasons. That put paid to any concerns among the front runners on fuel economy, and pretty much meant that only a major mistake could affect the front runners now.

Scott Dixon was the victim of a fairly massive mistake by Ryan Briscoe, who gassed up the car coming out of the final turn onto the start/finish straight and ploughed straight into the back of Dixon. Dixon was spun round and lost a lap before the marshalls got him going again, while Briscoe had to pit for a new front wing – and got a 30 second drive thru penalty for causing the accident in the first place, which put him a lap down as well.

There was a scare for Dan Wheldon in 5th place when Marco Andretti made a clumsy no-go move on him with five laps to go, but up front there was no doubt about Dario’s dominance as he stretched out a four second lead. As he reached the chequered flag we had a flurry of excitement further back – a great move by Alex Tagliani on Ryan Hunter-Reay for 10th, and an ignominious end for Vitor Meira’s race in the tyre wall.

It’s a great return to form and to the series that made his name in the US for Dario Franchitti after his misguided NASCAR excursion. But it’s a shame that this second place showing will be Will Power’s last race for Penske until the Indy 500, because he was consistently near the front while Helio Castroneves was stuck in the midfield and Ryan Briscoe only a couple of places ahead of him. But at least he’ll get a chance to run in the biggest race of the season.

Race result

Pos Driver              Car Difference
1   Dario Franchitti    10    --.----
2   Will Power          12     3.3182
3   Tony Kanaan         11     4.0537
4   Danica Patrick       7     5.0742
5   Dan Wheldon          4     6.5655
6   Marco Andretti      26     7.5900
7   Helio Castroneves    3     8.6332
8   Raphael Matos        2     9.4835
9   Robert Doornbos      6     9.9583
10  Alex Tagliani       34    13.6185
11  Ryan Hunter-Reay    21    15.2097
12  Graham Rahal         2    15.8507
13  Ryan Briscoe         6  1:05.1013
14  Vitor Meira         14    + 1 lap
15  Scott Dixon          9    + 1 lap
16  Darren Manning      23    + 1 lap
17  Stanton Barrett     98    + 1 lap
18  Ed Carpenter        20    + 3 laps
19  Mario Moraes         5    +14 laps      Contact
20  Hideki Mutoh        27    +25 laps
21  Mike Conway         24    +34 laps      Contact
22  Justin Wilson       18    +61 laps      Contact
23  EJ Viso             13    +69 laps      Contact

Championship standings

1.  Dario Franchitti    84pts --
2.  Will Power          69pts   -15
3.  Ryan Briscoe        67pts   -17
4.  Tony Kanaan         65pts   -19
5.  Ryan Hunter-Reay    59pts   -25
6.  Justin Wilson       49pts   -35
7.  Dan Wheldon         46pts   -38
8.  Marco Andretti      45pts   -39
9.  Graham Rahal        45pts   -39
10. Danica Patrick      44pts   -40
11. Robert Doornbos     41pts   -43
12. Alex Tagliani       40pts   -44
13. Darren Manning      38pts   -46
14. Vitor Meira         38pts   -46
15. Raphael Matos       36pts   -48
16. Stanton Barrett     31pts   -53
17. Scott Dixon         29pts   -55
18. Hideki Mutoh        27pts   -57
19. Helio Castroneves   26pts   -58
20. E.J. Viso           25pts   -59
21. Ed Carpenter        24pts   -60
22. Mario Moraes        24pts   -60
23. Mike Conway         24pts   -60
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