IRL: Round 6 – Bombardier Learjet 550, Texas – 6 June

Ryan Briscoe led the majority of the floodlit Bombardier Learjet 550 night race, only to falter at the critical final pit stop and see the race winner’s stetson get handed over to his team mate Helio Castroneves.

Briscoe had taken control thanks to a lengthy green flag period of racing that followed an initial second lap multi-car crash triggered by Graham Rahal, whose car was horribly loose and unstable from the start and which was falling rapidly back through the running order until finally it stepped out and hit EJ Viso, the two cars locking together and collecting Milka Duno on their way to a mutual exit against the inside wall.

At the restart, Briscoe quickly took the lead from Franchitti on lap 12 and built up a comfortable lead of 8s over Scott Dixon who took over second place from his team mate Franchitti, as the Aussie lapped all cars up to 7th place by the halfway point, and further helped by his pursuers getting delayed while lapping Alex Tagliani and Ed Carpenter.

Racing ran uninterrupted to lap 151 when a yellow was called for debris. Briscoe continued to lead until the final pit stops, which took place under a yellow that came out on lap 170 for an accident involving AJ Foyt IV who hit the wall after his suspension failed.

At this final pit stop, it was Briscoe’s team mate Helio Castroneves who got the best of things and came out ahead. Briscoe did all he could to hang on to Helio’s coat tails, but in the end had nothing in reserve and was frustrated to finish as the runner-up.

“We did the best we could, but I just didn’t have enough for Helio in the final stages,” Briscoe said. “The last 20 laps were some of the most frustrating I’ve ever driven. I led the whole race and had the quickest car out there, but I just couldn’t pass Helio.”

Scott Dixon finished in third place, conceding that “the Penske cars were definitely hooked up.” He added “The Target cars weren’t too bad. We just need to work on it a little bit.” But his team mate Franchitti was less sanguine after dropping to fifth place behind Marco Andretti in the final few laps, apparently because of problems with fuel mileage. Franchitti was annoyed that his Ganassi pit crew had told him about the problem too late for him to be able to manage it in the cockpit: “If they would have told me that from the start, I would have done a lot better and saved fuel. I gave away a place tonight, and I hope it doesn’t cost us at the end of the year.”

Andretti, meanwhile, was also unhappy – with his own Andretti-Green team mate, Danica Patrick. The two had been battling hard on track and Andretti fumed that “the toughest people out there passing me are my team-mates, and I don’t get that.”

Patrick and Andretti argued in the pit lane post-race, and it was up to the team’s senior driver Tony Kanaan to step in: “You live, you learn. That’s why I was telling [Marco] to just cool off. ‘I was right behind you both. I saw the whole thing. We’ll sit down at lunch and talk about it.'”

He agreed that the battle between his AGR team mates had looked overcooked: “It looked like they were racing for the lead when they were really racing for sixth and seventh,” he said. “But they’re kids, and one day they will learn. When you hit, you hit hard. One day they might respect each other a little more.” Perhaps he was remembering the pit lane fist fight he had with Sam Hornish Jr’s father after an on-track incident at Watkins Glenn in 2007 when he added, “It’s not worth it to create something you might regret later.”

Race result

Pos  Driver             Team                 Time
 1.  Helio Castroneves  Penske               1h55m16.1670s  (228 laps)
 2.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske                  + 0.3904s
 3.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi                 + 2.2461s
 4.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green          + 4.3745s
 5.  Dario Franchitti   Ganassi                 + 4.7695s
 6.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green          + 5.2980s
 7.  Dan Wheldon        Panther                 + 7.6203s
 8.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green          + 8.5009s
 9.  Ed Carpenter       Vision                  +18.7088s
10.  Mario Moraes       KV                      + 1 lap
11.  Robert Doornbos    Newman/Haas/Lanigan     + 1 lap
12.  Raphael Matos      Luczo Dragon            + 2 laps
13.  Tomas Scheckter    Dreyer & Reinbold       + 2 laps
14.  Alex Tagliani      Conquest                + 3 laps
15.  Justin Wilson      Coyne                   + 3 laps
16.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Vision                  + 3 laps
17.  Sarah Fisher       Fisher                  + 6 laps
18.  Jaques Lazier      3G                      +18 laps
19.  Mike Conway        Dreyer & Reinbold       +43 laps

Retirements:

     AJ Foyt IV         Foyt                 170 laps
     Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green       153 laps
     Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan    1 lap
     Milka Duno         Dreyer & Reinbold      1 lap
     EJ Viso            HVM                    1 lap

Championship standings

While he was understandably disappointed not to win the race, Briscoe can at least take satisfaction with taking the lead of the IRL championship, albeit by just 3pts ahead of Scott Dixon.

But Helio Castroneves is definitely staging a strong run. After missing the opening races of the season, he’s now up to 4th place – just 13pts behind the championship leader in what’s looking to be an incredibly tight four-way battle for the 2009 title.

Pos Driver  Points
1   Ryan Briscoe        199
2   Scott Dixon         196
3   Dario Franchitti    188
4   Hélio Castroneves   186
5   Danica Patrick      167
6   Dan Wheldon         152
7   Tony Kanaan         146
8   Marco Andretti      141
9   Graham Rahal        126
10  Ryan Hunter-Reay    116
11  Justin Wilson       107
12  Hideki Mutoh        107
13  Raphael Matos       106
14  Ed Carpenter        106
15  Robert Doornbos     104
16  Will Power           99
17  Mário Moraes         95
18  Alex Tagliani        75
19  Ernesto Viso         73
20  Mike Conway          72
21  Vitor Meira          62
22  Tomas Scheckter      52
23  Stanton Barrett      50
24  Sarah Fisher         43
25  Darren Manning       38
26  Milka Duno           38
27  Paul Tracy           35
28  Townsend Bell        32
29  A.J. Foyt IV         26
30  Alex Lloyd           17
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