IRL: Round 12 – Meijer Indy 300, Kentucky – 1 August

As the race attempted to dodge the bad weather that had caused the cancellation of qualifying, it was time to see what effects the new aerodynamic parts and in particular the return of a version of “push to pass” would make on the evening; would it stave off another of those dull processional races that we’ve seen twice so far this season?

With the running order set by championship points, initially there wasn’t too much movement up front; but Dario Franchitti was finding the pace noticeably too hot and was the big loser in the early stages, falling behind not only the two Penske cars but also the hard-charging Raphael Moraes and (somewhat startling!) Ed Carpenter, so that Dario fell to 6th.

There did seem to be more side-by-side action from the start, however, with the Andretti-Green Racing cars in particular seemingly locked in hand-to-hand combat with each other. Up front, Scott Dixon led from the start but Ryan Briscoe coasted up to his rear wing and then stayed in exactly the optimal spot, picking up the draft but not feeling inclined to take the lead outright. It was a clear declaration of intent: I’m here, and I can have you any time I like. The two of them dropped off the rest of the field during the first stint, until finally Briscoe used the distraction of passing a backmarker (Robert Doornbos) to trap Dixon on the inside line and take the lead.

It turned out to be a fleeting success, because pit stops started just short of the 50 lap distance, and Scott Dixon proved that – despite leading almost every lap so far – he had also made the best fuel economy, as he was able to stay out a lap longer. Briscoe, Castroneves and Franchitti all came in together into consecutive pit boxes, meaning they lost time manoeuvring around each other, whereas Dixon had the place to himself and coasted in and out in a straight line to resume the lead ahead of Briscoe once more.

There was drama further back in the pit lane involving one of the hitherto front runner, Raphael Moraes. He was coming into his pit box when Mike Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the pit boxes behind were just being released; there was crunching impact, with Moraes turned around and extensive body damage inflicted on the car that would take a long time to repair. After such a successful start to the evening it was a hugely disappointing outcome.

The pit stops didn’t seem to have done Dario Franchitti ay favours, as he was now overtaken by the AGR cars of Tony Kanaan and Danica Patrick and at one point washed dangerously high up the track and had to pull off the throttle altogether.

As the midpoint of the race and the second round of pit stops approached – still with no yellows in sight – Briscoe once again used the opportunity of lapped traffic (Hunter-Reay this time) to get alongside Dixon, and the two traded the nominal lead as they ran wheel-to-wheel for multiple laps. Finally it was Dixon who blinked first, this time the Ganassi needing to pit first for fuel, and that meant Briscoe was able to get the later, better stop and emerge on track firmly in front of Dixon – albeit only by a couple of car lengths.

The race was running at a fast and furious pace; with no yellows, half the race distance was run in a little over 45 minutes at an average speed of over 210mph, an incredible pace, but motivated by the rain radar which showed a huge bank of rain on its way in within the next half hour. The extra motivatation meant everyone was racing hard and not waiting for the alleged “final laps”.

Finally a caution came out on lap 122 as Justin Wilson suffered electical problems and crawled back to the pits. Moments later the pits opened, and almost the entire field streamed in – which it was off-sequence for the full race length, the prospect of rain made a stop a no-brainer – except that the wily Roger Penske kept his third car, Will Power, out on track to cover all bases. With Power taking over the race lead, and Castroneves opting not to take new tyres meaning that he beat Dixon out of the pits, all of a sudden the Penske team had a clean sweep of the top three positions – oh, how they would have loved the rain to start right that minute!

At the restart, Castroneves was slower than expected going into the final turn, catching out Dixon who passed him before the restart lane. He was ordered to cede the position back to Helio in subsequent laps, which cost him crucial time and positions.

Meanwhile both of them were blitzed by Ed Carpenter, who shot past them both in pursuit of the leaders. He got inside Ryan Briscoe, and Briscoe suddenly went shooting up the track – keeping his car off the wall by the narrowest of margins, and dropping to 8th before he could get back up to full speed. That left Carpenter to go wheel-to-wheel with Will Power for the lead in a series of thrilling laps, while Castroneves now found himself running alongside Tony Kanaan competing for 4th.

As the laps clicked past 150, Power’s pit stop was fast approaching. He alone would be able to go full race distance after that, everyone else would have to stop again – unless the rain intervened. Carpenter appeared to back off and inherited the lead when Power duly came down pit road a couple of laps later. But Carpenter’s astonishing turn of speed at the restart was now over, and he found the rest of the field closing up fast behind him – headed by Castroneves, a fully recovered Briscoe, Kanaan and then Graham Rahal getting the better of the fading pair of Ganassis who were duelling over 6th place.

With final pit stops now set for around lap 175, requiring only 3-4 seconds of fuel to get to the end of the race, the question now became: whether to take the extra time for fresh rubber or not? No one felt inclined to take the gamble, however, and all the front runners opted to wait for fresh rubber. As the pit stops cycled through, scrambling the running order one last time, and we entered the final dozen laps, Carpenter had resumed the lead ahead of Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti.

Now Briscoe made his move, winning a wheel-to-wheel battle with Kanaan and then going alongside Carpenter for the lead in a nerve-racking few minutes of side-by-side racing. And Castroneves was following Briscoe through as well, ready to pounce if either should make a mistake – but it was Helio that made the error, drifting too high up the race track and having to ease off the throttle to avoid disaster, putting him back behind Kanaan and out of contention for the race win.

Up front, it was a tense, thrilling high-speed finish to the race – the kind we’ve been missing this season until now. Confirmation, whoever should now win, that the changes IRL had brought in had reaped immediate rewards. Lap after lap, Briscoe and Carpenter remained locked together side-by-side; Briscoe was out of push-to-pass and unable to complete the overtaking move on Carpenter, but Briscoe seemed to be practising exactly where he needed to be off the last turn to get the slingshot across the line first when the chequered flag came out, and that’s exactly what he did at the end of lap 200 – beating the Vision Racing car by a mere 0.0162s – the 7th closest race in IRL history.

Everyone could breath again after an exciting event that showed IndyCar back to its best. “It was so close,” Briscoe said. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to touch wheels with Ed Carpenter here.’ It started getting closer and closer. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so excited crossing the finish line. It was very hard-fought out there.

“Now [with the changes] you can run down under people and get aggressive. That’s what made the racing so good. The aero changes, the tyres, the push-to-pass – I don’t think you can put your finger on one thing that made it better”

“Nobody knew if the changes were going to work, but they did,” agreed Carpenter. “This is definitely the most fun I’ve had in a long time.” And a special commendation for Carpenter, who has generally been a non-entity or an accident waiting for a place to happen, but who drove the best race of his IRL career here today. You almost felt sorry that it didn’t come off for him this time – but maybe a win is in the offing in the near future on this evidence.

And as the drivers and crews celebrated in the pits, the rain started to fall. That it waited until after the final lap showed just how this weekend at least, the luck was with IRL.

Race results

Pos  Driver             Team                      Time/Gap
 1.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske               1h28m24.3246s
 2.  Ed Carpenter       Vision                  +  0.0162s
 3.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green          +  0.1614s
 4.  Helio Castroneves  Penske                  +  0.2728s
 5.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan     +  0.6346s
 6.  Dario Franchitti   Ganassi                 +  1.7670s
 7.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi                 +  3.2512s
 8.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green          +  4.7231s
 9.  Will Power         Penske                  +  6.1424s
10.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green          +  6.9963s
11.  Dan Wheldon        Panther                 + 12.7597s
12.  Sarah Fisher       Sarah Fisher            + 15.9732s
13.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green          + 27.9705s
14.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Foyt                    +   3 laps
15.  EJ Viso            HVM                     +   3 laps
16.  Raphael Matos      Luczo Dragon            +   4 laps
17.  Mike Conway        Dreyer & Reinbold       +   8 laps
18.  Mario Moraes       KV                      +  12 laps
19.  Robert Doornbos    Newman/Haas/Lanigan     +  15 laps
20.  Milka Duno         Dreyer & Reinbold       +  35 laps

Retirements:

     Justin Wilson      Coyne                120 laps
     Tomas Scheckter    Dreyer & Reinbold    59 laps
     Jaques Lazier      3G                   43 laps

IRL championship standings

Briscoe’s win is critical in the championship standings, caterpaulting him over the Ganassi duo into the top spot.

Pos Driver  Points
1   Ryan Briscoe        416
2   Scott Dixon         409
3   Dario Franchitti    405
4   Helio Castroneves   341
5   Danica Patrick      309
6   Marco Andretti      279
7   Dan Wheldon         274
8   Tony Kanaan         274
9   Graham Rahal        265
10  Justin Wilson       253
11  Hideki Mutoh        237
12  Ed Carpenter        226
13  Ryan Hunter-Reay    210
14  Will Power          209
15  Robert Doornbos     209
16  Raphael Matos       208
17  Mario Moraes        181
18  Ernesto Viso        179
19  Mike Conway         173
20  Tomas Scheckter     137
21  Alex Tagliani       114
22  Paul Tracy           87
23  Milka Duno           63
24  Vitor Meira          62
25  Sarah Fisher         61
26  Jaques Lazier        53
27  Stanton Barrett      50
28  Darren Manning       38
29  Richard Antinucci    36
30  Townsend Bell        32
31  A.J. Foyt IV         26
32  Alex Lloyd           17
33  Scott Sharp          16
34  John Andretti        12
35  Nelson Philippe      10
35  Davey Hamilton       10
35  Oriol Servia         10
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