INDY: Round 17 – Homestead, Florida – Oct 2

The sky was ablaze with a gorgeous Miami sunset, while on the track below the sparks were literally flying as the final race in the 2010 Indycar season got underway.

Scott Dixon dutifully tucked in behind the leader Dario Franchitti, but even by slipstreaming and adding a little push to his Ganassi team mate the two cars were in no position to break away from the field behind them, led by Will Power and Tony Kanaan. However, the big mover in the early laps was Helio Castroneves, up to 5th place by lap 20 having started in 10th: it looked like he was making it his mission to come to the aid of his Penske team mate Will Power at the front of the field in the pursuit of the championship.

But as Helio rose, Will was falling back having been rudely shut out of the top three by an assertive Kanaan, down as far back as 9th place by lap 33 while trying to get to grips with the situation. It was a reminder that with the sun setting and the track rapidly cooling, handling conditions were going to vary wildly all over the place and the winner was going to be the car – and the team – that could read the situation best and adapt quickest.

At the front, Dario was already dealing with lapped traffic, while behind him Scott Dixon was losing a duel with Kanaan for second when the first caution of the evening came out on lap 36 for Mario Moraes coming to a stop out on track, having previously been in the pits to try and correct a seriously loose car.

A yellow flag pit top was just what Penske needed at this point to try to get to resolve Will Power’s handling problems: he reported push in three and four, loose in one and two, a fearsomely difficult situation to find himself so early in proceedings. At the pit stops, Kanaan nearly came to grief getting away from his pit box when the car appeared to stutter and nearly stall as he sought to avoid the car pitted in front, leaving him boxed up behind other exiting cars and down to fifth place. He was replaced in second by Ryan Briscoe, which meant that for the first time tonight Dario had his rear view mirrors full of Penske team colours.

Briscoe was looking feisty, all over Dario and using push to pass to briefly claim the lead. Dario was playing cool, sticking to the inside line and daring Ryan to complete the pass – which he couldn’t, quite. And then a new caution was out after Ana Beatriz – having had trouble getting into gear at the restart – now lost the rear and took off up to the outside wall and hitting hard at turn 4. The seriously wrecked chassis slid down the incline to a halt below the white line moments later.

And so the race chalked up the completion of its first quarter under yellow. Few cars opted to pit – Simone de Silvestro, Alex Tagliani, a curiously underperforming Justin Wilson, Hideki Mutoh and Sarah Fisher being the exceptions as there was an outside chance of making it on two more stops from here. The leaders, however, all stayed out.

When the green came out, fierce battle for the lead was resumed between Franchitti and Briscoe, Dario once again holding the inside line to thwart Ryan time and again. But the fastest man on track was Tony Kanaan, who quickly dispatched Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves and flirted with going three-wide for the lead. Finally Dario could hold off Ryan no more and Briscoe was released, and Dario fell back – possibly to catch his breath, perhaps with tyres complaining about the punishment of that tight inside line. In fact the strain of taking the lead had also taken its toll on Briscoe, and he was soon passed by Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan.

Meanwhile, where was Will Power? Back fighting over seventh place with Danica Patrick, the two of them coming worryingly close at times to making contact. But Will seemed to be finding his mojo, and soon was past not only Danica but also Dan Wheldon for sixth.

Back at the front, Dario was bouncing back, rapidly slipping past Briscoe and Dixon and then selling Kanaan a nice dummy to gain the inside line and retake the top spot on lap 73, soon pulling out a half second lead and showing a dominance that was new to the #10 tonight. The handling seemed to be coming back to him – and the same could be said for Will Power, who was getting better and better as this green flag stint wore on and was up to fourth place: the problem for him was that with Dario closing in on the bonus points for leading the most laps, then it would not matter what Power did if Dario was leading at the chequered flag.

As the race passed the 90 lap mark, Dan Wheldon and Ryan Briscoe were the first of the leaders to come in for green flag pit stops, the cars opting to take only as much fuel as they could put in while the tyres were being changed rather than putting in a full tank’s worth. Franchitti, Kanaan and Power all did the same when they came in for their stops a few laps later, and there was a brief scare out on track when a piece of refuelling hose was seen bouncing across the track apparently from EJ Viso’s car: fortunately it bounced into the grass and could be safely recovered without resorting to a caution.

With the race past half distance, Franchitti led Kanaan, Dixon, Power, Briscoe and Castroneves, in a much closer and fierce battle this year than the processional affair seen at the same venue in 2009: for one thing, Power was putting in the fastest laps now, and was gaining on the lead. The championship looked et to go all the way to very last lap.

Dario had problems closer to hand, with Kanaan pressing hard to take the lead. Franchitti was holding on for dear life, the milestone being the start of lap 118 at which point he could not be overtaken for laps led: two more crucial bonus points acquired, another item off the weekend’s to-do list ticked off. Now all he had to do was win this thing and he could call it a day: but things were still so tight that, should he lose the lead and drop to second, then Power’s fourth place was enough to clinch the title.

Lap 134 saw the next caution: and there was shock when it became clear the cause of the yellow was none other than Will Power himself, who had got up high when coming up to lap Ryan Hunter-Reay and ended up sliding up on the marbles and into the wall at turn 4. It seemed a light contact, glancing down the wall with multiple light contacts leaving rubber all down the outside wall, and initially it seemed that Power might just have escaped complete disaster with no damage visible on the right front suspension.

That’s because the damage was to the right rear instead: a rear wishbone had buckled, and it was clear when Power wasn’t able to enter the pit box cleanly without almost pinning his pit crew up against the wall that the car was badly affected. Will was told to cut the engine and the car was taken behind pit wall for the mechanics to get to work, five minutes work putting him five laps down in the process. And it wasn’t enough: after a couple of laps touring around under yellow, Power was back in to the pits reporting serious crabbing to the right. The car was taken back behind the wall and Power was out of the car to allow the mechanics access: this was a body blow. The type of disaster that decides championships.

Not that Dario had the title in his pocket: he was still behind Will in the points and would remain so unless and until he could get the car to the chequered flag without mishap. Dario’s task was made just that little bit easier still, by Tony Kanaan having a penalty handed down for leaving his pit with the fuel hose still engaged, knocking the crew over like skittles. That got him sent to the back of the lead lap, but as this was only eighth place and with Kanaan still in such a fast car, odds were he would be back near the front well before the end of proceedings.

With the race still under yellow – a delay going back to green caused by one of the lights indicating whether the pit lane was open needing attention in the meantime – the issue of fuel strategies was looming: come cars such as Vitor Meira, Danica, Tony Kanaan and others off the lead lap came in for top-ups, looking to lean out the fuel over the remaining fifty laps. But the top five – Franchitti, Dixon, Andretti, Castroneves and Wheldon – all stayed out and planned for a late splash and dash.

Marco Andretti was on the charge at the restart, quickly pulling up alongside Franchitti and challenging for the lead on the outside. When that didn’t work, he dropped to the inside – and pulled off the pass. Unsurprisingly, Dario no longer seemed to have the determination to hold on to the lead anymore: a good finish, anywhere in the top ten, would do just fine. No need to push it or take risks.

Dario had dropped back to fourth when the next caution came out on lap 166 for debris, a nice opportunity for everyone to come in to the pits for their final fuel stops, except those those had sneaked a crafty late top-up under the previous caution. The exception was Marco Andretti, who had burned up a lot of fuel taking the lead and who needed to join the likes of Franchtti and Briscoe in the pits. But Dixon, Castroneves, Kanaan, Danica, Wheldon and Vitor Meira all stayed out, risky as it could prove to be, and hence formed the top six at the restart. That meant Dario was eighth, only just above the tenth position he had to maintain to clinch the title even with Will Power back in pit lane.

The restart was waved off twice, causing consternation to those worried about fuel, but a rapid return to yellow on lap 175 seemed to put the fuel issue beyond further doubt. The caution was for Milka Duno spinning and hitting the wall – and she did it right in front of Dario Franchitti, who managed to miss her wrecking but who would have had championship thoughts flashing before his eyes. He’d dropped down to ninth at the back of the lead lap as as a result, and the whole thing was becoming agonisingly close and tight as Will Power could only watch on from the sidelines, willing some mishap to overtake his rival.

The final stint of the race: Dixon took off at the front, while Helio found himself unable to match the pace of Andretti Autosports team mates Kanaan and Patrick, who staged a side-by-side battle for second place for the remainder of the laps, Patrick showing more pace and aggression in these twenty laps than she had for the entire rest of the season: she deserved the position, and nipped Kanaan for second by 0.011s. But their private battle had given Scott Dixon all the time in the world to run away and hide, and he claimed an impressive race win for Ganassi.

And Franchitti? And the title? Dario was lurking well out of harm’s way, or so he hoped. He picked up an extra position when Dan Wheldon’s National Guard car hit problems and fell back through the field, but he had no inclination to go near anyone who could do him harm – like any of the remaining Penske boys. But Dario’s an experienced, canny old hand and he plotted his course carefully – the chequered flag came into sight, and it was over. Dario’s careful magical eighth had done the trick.

With Dario Franchitti champion for the third time in four years, and Scott Dixon winning the race, the final piece in Dario’s perfect day was relayed to him over the radio with news that cousin Marino Franchitti had won in the LMP2 class of the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. All in all, Dario’s smile – tinged with a fair helping of relief – couldn’t have been broader or more heartfelt. Congrats, Dario!

And heartfelt commiserations to Will Power who would have been a well-liked, sentimental champion if not for that hit with the wall. So close, and yet not nearly close enough for the Aussie.

Race result

Pos  Driver               Team                    Time/Gap
 1.  Scott Dixon          Ganassi         1:52:08.5580s
 2.  Danica Patrick       Andretti           +  2.7587s
 3.  Tony Kanaan          Andretti           +  2.7698s
 4.  Ryan Briscoe         Penske             +  3.7827s
 5.  Helio Castroneves    Penske             +  5.3324s
 6.  Vitor Meira          Foyt               +  7.2126s
 7.  Marco Andretti       Andretti           +  8.3637s
 8.  Dario Franchitti     Ganassi            + 11.1401s
 9.  Dan Wheldon          Panther            + 22.2521s
10.  Graham Rahal         Newman/Haas        +    1 lap
11.  Ryan Hunter-Reay     Andretti           +    1 lap
12.  Alex Lloyd           Dale Coyne         +    1 lap
13.  Ed Carpenter         Panther/Vision     +    1 lap
14.  Alex Tagliani        FAZZT              +    1 lap
15.  Bertrand Baguette    Conquest           +    1 lap
16.  Sebastian Saavedra   Conquest           +    1 lap
17.  Raphael Matos        De Ferran Dragon   +    1 lap
18.  Takuma Sato          KV                 +    1 lap
19.  EJ Viso              KV                 +   2 laps
20.  Hideki Mutoh         Newman/Haas        +   2 laps
21.  Justin Wilson        Dreyer & Reinbold  +   2 laps
22.  Sarah Fisher         Sarah Fisher       +   3 laps
23.  Simona de Silvestro  HVM                +   3 laps

Retirements:

Milka Duno    Dale Coyne        170 laps
Will Power    Penske            143 laps
Ana Beatriz   Dreyer & Reinbold  42 laps
Mario Moraes  KV                 25 laps

Championship standings

Pos Driver              Pts
1.  Dario Franchitti    602
2.  Will Power          597
3.  Scott Dixon         547
4.  Helio Castroneves   531
5.  Ryan Briscoe        482
6.  Tony Kanaan         453
7.  Ryan Hunter-Reay    445
8.  Marco Andretti      392
9.  Dan Wheldon         388
10. Danica Patrick      367
11. Justin Wilson       361
12. Vitor Meira         310
13. Alex Tagliani       302
14. Raphael Matos       290
15. Mario Moraes        287
16. Alex Lloyd          266
17. Ernesto Viso        262
18. Hideki Mutoh        250
19. Simona de Silvestro 242
20. Graham Rahal        235
21. Takuma Sato         214
22. Bertrand Baguette   213
23. Milka Duno          184
24. Mario Romancini     149
25. Mike Conway         110
26. Sarah Fisher         92
27. Paul Tracy           91
28. Ed Carpenter         90
29. Tomas Scheckter      89
30. Ana Beatriz          55
31. Jay Howard           44
32. John Andretti        35
33. Sebastian Saavedra   29
34. Adam Carroll         26
35. J.R. Hildebrand      26
36. Davey Hamilton       26
37. Francesco Dracone    24
38. Townsend Bell        18
39. Bruno Junqueira      13
40. Roger Yasukawa       12
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