IRL: Round 15 – Peak 300, Chicagoland Speedway – 29 August

Penske and Ganassi drivers are dominating the championship this year – and they dominated the action on track at Chicagoland Speedway as well right from the start, as IRL returned to oval racing and came under the spotlight in a literal sense in the chilly and windy conditions at the Windy City.

Showing that the aerodynamic changes and reintroduction of push-to-pass had succeed in their intent, we got some breathless, tight running at the start. Ryan Briscoe led Helio Castroneves as the two maintained side-by-side formation for several laps, while Scott Dixon charged through the field to take up third spot ahead of Dario Franchitti. Briscoe continued to lead until the first round of pit stops under green at the quarter-distance mark, managing to stay out longer than either Penske car and putting himself into the lead as a result as he rejoined the track.

However, Briscoe soon resumed the lead over Dixon, and then both drivers struggled as they hit started to lap traffic. As they got stuck behind the slow runners, Helio Castroneves pulled off a spectacular move, moving up into the high third groove and sweeping past Briscoe, Dixon and the backmarkers all in one go, at one stage three-wide with EJ Viso and Mike Conway having their own private battle.

Dixon tried to emulate the move but found the high line impossible to pull off; instead he ended up in a prolonged wheel-to-wheel battle with Viso who showed no sign in yielding, and even a push from Franchitti did little to assist him, showing that even the leaders’ superior pace counted for little in traffic.

By the time of the first full course caution on lap 92, the lead pack were some eight seconds ahead of the second group headed by Ed Carpenter. The caution was triggered by a heavy crash for Andretti Green’s Hideki Mutoh, who slid up into the wall and wrecked the back end of the car. It came just before the midrace distance, neatly timed for the second round of pit stops of the evening.

Once again Dixon got the best of the pit stops and returned to the lead of the race; but it was a blunder by Briscoe, who came to a stop just a little too far away from the pit wall for the refueller to quite reach, slowing down the stop and returning Briscoe to the track in 8th position. Still, it was better than Dan Wheldon’s pit stop that ended up with a broken half-shaft and an early finish to the day for the Panther driver.

With the pack closed up again by the caution period, the racing was incredibly tight again after the green flag came out: Dixon and Castroneves were locked together side-by-side for first, while Raphael Moraes muscled his way past Carpenter to go two-wide with Franchitti, leaving Carpenter packed up alongside Tony Kanaan. And hen a real wild card came through in the form of Tomas Scheckter who converted these battles briefly to three-wide as be rose up to third place.

The caution flags came out again on lap 109 when Marco Andretti went up too high and lost grip on the marbles, sending him the rest of the way up to a glancing, light impact with the wall. The car was undamaged and returned to the track after a change of tyres. Despite the fact that it was only a short while since the last round of pit stops, many of the leaders came in again anyway: Dixon and Castroneves dropped three places apiece coming off pit road in doing so, and Briscoe’s refueller again struggled with his duties – this time the result of the sharp angle Briscoe presented him with. Meanwhile, Scheckter and Kanaan opted to stay out and assumed the top spots.

It was another incredibly tight and tense restart, with Kanaan taking the lead while Scheckter and Franchitti went wheel-wheel for second, and Moraes and Carpenter’s two-way battle behind them went three-wide when Dixon decided he was going to make the high line work for him this time around – and pulled it off.

The Ganassi duo soon dispatched Kanaan and Scheckter and took over the top spots. With their Penske rivals stuck down the running order (10th for Briscoe, 12th for Castroneves), it was starting to look like a done deal; but the race wasn’t done quite yet and Briscoe briskly made his way back to 3rd place with Moraes in 4th, although Helio laboured and made heavy weather of it before he too returned to the top four.

At the final round of pit stops, Dixon’s Ganassi crew once again performed miracles and got their man out on track in the lead. Less fortunate was his team mate Dario Franchitti: the right front tyre changer had to lay down the air gun to retrieve a lugnut, and the air hose caught on the front of the car and needed to be untangled before Dario could be waved out. It only cost a second or two, but race victories have depended on far less.

It looked like it was going to be a shoot-out between the four of them, but on lap 183 something suddenly broke on Castroneves’ suspension sending him flying up into a crunching impact with the wall; Dario Franchitti, running the outside line just behind him, was fortunate not to be collected by Helio on the way. It eliminated Helio form the race and indeed the championship, and left the race a ten-lap sprint to the chequered flag.

Briscoe, Dixon and Franchitti ran line astern, while the big battle was between Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Raphael Moraes and Ed Carpenter behind them for fourth position. Energised by this fight, Rahal and Moraes emerged from the battle of the fittest and took the battle to the leaders, giving Franchitti all sorts of problems trying to hold them off. As Dixon and Briscoe went side-by-side for the remaining laps of the race, Rahal was first to assert his case, sweeping around Franchitti to make it a three-wide battle. But Rahal’s push-to-pass was spent and his challenge faded so that he sank back, leaving Moraes side by side with Franchitti for third place.

Briscoe couldn’t complete the pass against Dixon, but lap after lap he was just in front at the one point it mattered: over the start/finish line. And so as they approached the chequered flag, Briscoe willed himself to do it one last time – and pulled it off, by an eye-wateringly slim margin of 0.0077s or the width of a front wing. Behind them, Moraes also found the outside line to be the right one for the last lap lunge and passed the line half a car length in front of Franchitti.

It had been an exciting and hard fought IndyCar race – the series seemes back to its best after some worrying early duds. No one can say this one was dull, and the best man definitely won at the end in the shape of Ryan Briscoe.

Race result

Pos  Driver             Team                      Time/Gap
 1.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske               1h42m34.3051s
 2.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi                  + 0.0077s
 3.  Mario Moraes       KV                       + 0.0699s
 4.  Dario Franchitti   Ganassi                  + 0.0997s
 5.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan      + 0.1295s
 6.  Ed Carpenter       Vision                   + 0.1668s
 7.  Oriol Servia       Newman/Haas/Lanigan      + 0.2612s
 8.  Tomas Scheckter    Dreyer & Reinbold        + 0.2683s
 9.  Raphael Matos      Luczo Dragon             + 0.3356s
10.  Justin Wilson      Coyne                    + 0.4344s
11.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green           + 0.5224s
12.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green           + 0.5840s
13.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green           + 0.8269s
14.  Sarah Fisher       Fisher                   +   1 lap
15.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Foyt                     +   1 lap
16.  Mike Conway        Dreyer & Reinbold        +   1 lap
17.  EJ Viso            HVM                      +  2 laps
18.  Robert Doornbos    HVM                      +  3 laps
19.  Jaques Lazier      3G                       +  5 laps

Retirements:

     Helio Castroneves  Penske               184 laps
     Milka Duno         Dreyer & Reinbold    155 laps
     Dan Wheldon        Panther              95 laps
     Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green       90 laps

IRL championship standings

Briscoe’s championship lead is stretched to 25 points with just two rounds to go – by no means safe or even comfortable, but the title is looking like Briscoe’s to lose.

Helio’s retirement means that he is now mathematically ruled out of the title hunt. It’s a thee-way fight to the finish, starting with Motegi in two weeks’ time.

Pos Driver              Points
1   Ryan Briscoe        550
2   Dario Franchitti    525
3   Scott Dixon         517
4   Helio Castroneves   383
5   Danica Patrick      353
6   Marco Andretti      342
7   Tony Kanaan         335
8   Graham Rahal        331
9   Dan Wheldon         318
10  Justin Wilson       316
11  Hideki Mutoh        309
12  Ed Carpenter        286
13  Raphael Matos       274
14  Ryan Hunter-Reay    269
15  Robert Doornbos     257
16  Mario Moraes        248
17  Mike Conway         234
18  Ernesto Viso        219
19  Will Power          215
20  Tomas Scheckter     161
21  Alex Tagliani       114
22  Paul Tracy          113
23  Milka Duno          100
24  Oriol Servia         83
25  Sarah Fisher         77
26  Jaques Lazier        65
27  Richard Antinucci    63
28  Vitor Meira          62
29  Stanton Barrett      50
30  Darren Manning       38
31  Townsend Bell        32
32  A.J. Foyt IV         26
33  Alex Lloyd           17
34  Scott Sharp          16
35  Nelson Philippe      16
36  John Andretti        12
37  Franck Montagny      12
38  Davey Hamilton       10
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