IRL: Round 3 – Road Runner Turbo Indy 300, Kansas – 26 April

It’s strange how quickly we forget that IRL is at heart really an oval series. After two events on street courses, IRL looked odd on the Kansas Speedway. And of course it meant that whatever form book we thought we had after the opening two rounds, it really didn’t apply here.

The drivers faced problems getting back into the oval groove, with the weather very cool and windy, and rain having washed the track of its rubber; all the teams were watching the skies in case the forecast storms rolled in and caused the race to be finished early, but in the end they managed the full race distance uninterrupted.

Graham Rahal seemed completely at home on ovals and easily converted pole into the early lead. Robert Doornbos was evidently less happy with ovals and easily ceded the second spot to Scott Dixon, who then went on to easily take the lead from Rahal on lap 9 and open out a comfortable gap.

The first caution came out on lap 15 when Vitor Meira suddenly got impeded by Raphael Matos and had to slow up abruptly. Helio Castroneves was closing fast from behind and had no time to react, rear-ending him and losing his front wing; Meira meanwhile was sent spinning rear-first into the wall, losing his rear wing assembly which is a far more terminal matter. And innocent bystander EJ Viso collected damage from a flying bit of debris from Helio’s demolished front wing.

Under caution, Doornbos made a great pit stop but then clipped a tyre in his team mate’s pit box as he came out, sending it spinning into the air – a definite IRL no-no. He was sent to the back of the lead lap for the transgression, and was never able to significantly recover from this set-back.

After the race went green again, it was Helio despite all his trials and tribulations who was making a charge from the back to carve his way through the field, despite having topped up his fuel during the pit stops and therefore running heavier than anyone else.

Scott Dixon was still leading as they his third race distance at lap 66, but Tony Kanaan has passed Rahal for second leaving Rahal fighting for third against an on-form Ryan Briscoe. Rahal’s team mate Doornbos was suffering after his earlier penalty and was geting lapped by the leaders, as pit stops started with Justin Wilson under green flag conditions. Despite leading the field – not benefiting from the draft and not slacking off his pace at all – it was Scott Dixon who made his fuel last the longest, almost matching Castroneves who had topped off after the lap 15 yellow.

Raphael Matos brought out the second caution lap 96 when he lost downforce behind Mario Moraes and washed up the track into a light hit against the safer barrier, allowing everyone to take a yellow flag pit stop. Hideki Mutoh got sent to the back for running over a fuel hose in pit lane.

At the restart, it was Briscoe leading Kanaan, then Dixon, with Castroneves now up to 4th and Dario Franchitti in 5th – something like the familiar old line-up, together again – albeit led by a new young gun.

Franchitti actually lost ground over the next stint, falling back to 7th and tussling with Danica Patrick. The next round of pit stops were coming up, and Ryan Briscoe actually in the pits, when suddenly disaster struck Dario on lap 153: he looked to be coming into the pits at speed, when in front Graham Rahal made a late move to the infield lane to come into the pits himself. Rahal was going much slower and suddenly Franchitti was on collision course: hitting the brakes, he was forced to turn right and off the car shot into heavy impact against the wall. The car was totally, definitely no chance of repair.

Everyone pitted under the ensuing yellow, but Penske were unhappy with the stewards who ruled that Briscoe hadn’t been in the pit lane before the yellows came out and therefore was not allowed to complete his stop. It seemed a discrepancy between the yellow line indicating the pit lane entrance, and the actual timing line. As it turned out the damage to Briscoe’s chances was probably less than it looked at the time.

At the restart on lap 158, Dixon led Castroneves, Kanaan, Briscoe and Patrick, and that’s the order they eventually finished in. It was a great result for Dixon, who had suffered in the opening two rounds and was in need of some success to buoy up his season – he jumps up from 17th to 4th in the championship standings and looked comfortably in charge throughout the event.

It was also a good day for Andretti-Green, who got all four of their cars home in the top eight. Graham Rahal also did well, finishing 7th after losing position in the final round of pit stops.

On the whole though – and especially compared with the dramatic carnage at the simultaneous NASCAR event at Talladega – this was a rather quiet, muted return to the ovals for IRL. You get the feeling that for many it was really an extended practice session for the biggest oval race of the season – the Indy 500, which is where we head to next.

It takes IRL almost a full month to wind itself up to readiness for Indianapolis. But that whole build up starts right now, with Dixon looking on song for a consecutive oval victory but Castroneves determined to celebrate his return to racing after recent legal problems with the biggest prize in US motorsport.

Race results

Pos  Driver             Team                  Time
 1.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi               200 laps
 2.  Helio Castroneves  Penske               + 0.7104s
 3.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green       + 1.5022s
 4.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske               + 1.8872s
 5.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green       + 2.6502s
 6.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green       + 3.8013s
 7.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan  + 7.8233s
 8.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green       + 8.5430s
 9.  Ed Carpenter       Vision               + 8.9871s
10.  Dan Wheldon        Panther              + 9.7681s
11.  Mario Moraes       KV                   +20.9048s
12.  Robert Doornbos    Newman/Haas/Lanigan  +   1 lap
13.  Sarah Fisher       Fisher               +   1 lap
14.  Justin Wilson      Coyne                +   1 lap
15.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Vision               +  4 laps
16.  Milka Duno         Dreyer & Reinbold    +  5 laps

Retirements:

     Stanton Barrett    3G                  181 laps
     Dario Franchitti   Ganassi             151 laps
     Mike Conway        Dreyer & Reinbold   109 laps
     Raphael Matos      Luczo Dragon        95 laps
     EJ Viso            HVM                 37 laps
     Vitor Meira        Foyt                14 laps

IndyCar Championship standings

It’s very tight indeed at the top after three races, with former leader Dario Franchitti scoring poorly at Kansas:

1. Tony Kanaan          100pts      Leader
2. Ryan Briscoe          99pts      -1
3. Dario Franchitti      96pts      -4
4. Scott Dixon           81pts      -19
5. Ryan Hunter-Reay      74pts      -26
6. Danica Patrick        74pts      -26
7. Marco Andretti        73pts      -27
8. Graham Rahal          72pts      -28
9. Will Power            69pts      -31
10. Helio Castroneves    66pts      -34
11. Dan Wheldon          66pts      -34
12. Justin Wilson        65pts      -35
13. Robert Doornbos      59pts      -41
14. Hideki Mutoh         51pts      -49
15. Vitor Meira          50pts      -50
16. Raphael Matos        48pts      -52
17. Ed Carpenter         46pts      -54
18. Stanton Barrett      44pts      -56
19. Mario Moraes         43pts      -57
20. Alex Tagliani        40pts      -60
21. Darren Manning       38pts      -62
22. E.J. Viso            37pts      -63
23. Mike Conway          36pts      -64
24. Sarah Fisher         17pts      -83
25. Milka Duno           14pts      -86
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