IRL: Round 8 – SunTrust Indy Challenge, Richmond Va. – 27 June

Ganassi dominated the SunTrust Indy Challenge under floodlights at Richmond from start to finish, with the only question being whether it would be Dario Franchitti or Scott Dixon who would win. It came down to a single fuel top-up.

Franchitti led away from pole position, although the race had a false start when Jaques Lazier managed to spin the car off turn 1 and hit the wall bringing out an immediate yellow. Once the mess was cleared up, the race managed just under twenty laps before the second yellow duly came out – this time for the big name scalp of Ryan Briscoe, championship leader going into the weekend, who managed to spin off turn 2: “The car just snapped on me and caught me by surprise,” he said.

Most of the leaders – including Franchitti and Dixon – opted to come in for fuel an tyres at this point, but Andretti-Green’s Hideki Mutoh opted to stay out and inherted the laead for the next 74 laps, with the Ganassi cars closing up and running behind him until Franchitti reclaimed the lead on lap 105 when Mutoh finally came into the pits.

The critical point of the race came on lap 135, when much of the field had already come in for their second round of pits stops, this time under green. Franchitti and Rahal were just about to come in when Mike Conway understeered off turn 4 and slid into the wall. Rahal waved off his stop, but Franchitti’s fuel situation was critical and he was forced to use the legal option of coming in for a small top-off to keep him going until the pit lane officially opened for full stops.

That minor necessity put him behind Dixon for the first time in the evening, and when Dixon, Franchitti and Rahal finally got to come into the pits under yellow, Dixon duly emerged first on track. Thanks to the timing of the yelow, the three of them had three-quaters of a lap over the rest of the field who were still on the lead lap: it effectively limited this to a three-car shoot-out to the end.

The only other moment that could have upset the Ganassi apple cart was the third and last round of pit stops. Again, most of the field had pitted under green when the yellow came out and allowed the trio to pit under caution again, and once more Dixon was able to enter and exit the pits in command of the race.

The yellow had been triggered by Helio Castroneves hitting the wall in turn 2. He had come up fast on the back of Tomas Scheckter running a lap down, who had got loose and almost ended up in the wall. Castroneves was unsighted and came up so fast on the number 23 that he had no where to go himself except on the marbles and into the wall: “Unfortunately for some reason a car slowed down in front of me and in order for me to not crash him, I ended up crashing myself. I had to get out of the throttle which just pushed my car up into the marbles and then the wall.”

The wreck ended a dismal race for Penske with serious implications for the team in the IRL championship standings. “I’m extremely disappointed with the way our race ended tonight,” said the Brazilian. “We didn’t have a winning car but we had a top five car and we were just trying to stay on the lead lap and score some championship points.

With Mutoh and Danica Patrick stuck in lapped traffic, and Rahal the only near challenger suffering from a vibration problem in the closing laps, Ganassi took the decision to run their cars in formation a second off their top times and not worry about trying to get past the lapped traffic ahead. It made for a dull closing few dozens laps, as Dixon led Franchitti to the chequered flag and Dario was left to rue the need for that small fuel top-up mid-race.

It was a race that left an unpleasant taste in the mouths of both the spectators (many of the Richmond stands ominously closed and empty as the crowd was less than half capacity) and drivers alike. With just three lead changes among three drivers, and just five cars were on the lead lap at the finis, the IRL cars simply seemed unable to manage overtaking moves on this tight oval.

“It’s not like we’re just cruising around,” said Franchitti, before admitting: “But nobody can get close enough to make passes. We need to look at that and fix it.” Even much slower lapped traffic was a problem: “We couldn’t pass. We were a second slower when we were in traffic. I have to apologise to the fans because that was an awful, awful race.

“Many things we’ve changed over the last two years have maybe stopped the amount of passing,” Dixon agreed. “But we’ve got to keep in mind what we’re here to do. We’re here to race. We’re here to put on a show. Without our fans, we don’t exist.”

It follows similar criticism of the Kansas and Texas races in particular, and IRL is looking at changes to car specifications with regard to aerodynamics and downforce, along with changes to tyre specs and the reintroduction of a “power push to pass” to give drivers a chance to try overtaking again – and give fans a reason for watching.

Not that Ganassi will be too unhappy with the fact that no one was able to pass them on track this weekend!

Race results

Pos  Driver             Team                      Time/Gap
 1.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi              1h48m02.4703s
 2.  Dario Franchitti   Ganassi                 +  0.3109s
 3.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan     +  2.4085s
 4.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green          + 13.5302s
 5.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green          + 14.1111s
 6.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green          +    1 lap
 7.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green          +    1 lap
 8.  Raphael Matos      Luczo Dragon            +    1 lap
 9.  Robert Doornbos    Newman/Haas/Lanigan     +    1 lap
10.  Dan Wheldon        Panther                 +    1 lap
11.  Tomas Scheckter    Dreyer & Reinbold       +    1 lap
12.  EJ Viso            HVM                     +    1 lap
13.  Ed Carpenter       Vision                  +    1 lap
14.  Justin Wilson      Coyne                   +   2 laps
15.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Foyt                    +   2 laps
16.  Mario Moraes       KV                      +   3 laps

Retirements:

     Helio Castroneves  Penske               245 laps
     Mike Conway        Dreyer & Reinbold    135 laps
     Ryan Briscoe       Penske               26 laps
     Jaques Lazier      3G                   0 laps

Championship standings

Ryan Briscoe takes a hit in the standings and drops to 3rd, as the two Ganassi drivers take the top spots split by a single point. It couldn’t be closer between Dixon and Franchitti – but behind them, Ganassi is definitely drawing away from the competition.

Pos Driver              Points
1   Dario Franchitti    279
2   Scott Dixon         278
3   Ryan Briscoe        253
4   Hélio Castroneves   225
5   Danica Patrick      219
6   Dan Wheldon         204
7   Tony Kanaan         190
8   Marco Andretti      185
9   Graham Rahal        180
10  Hideki Mutoh        174
11  Raphael Matos       144
12  Ryan Hunter-Reay    143
13  Ed Carpenter        143
14  Robert Doornbos     141
15  Justin Wilson       135
16  Mário Moraes        122
17  Mike Conway         108
18  Ernesto Viso        103
19  Will Power           99
20  Tomas Scheckter      99
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