Helio Castroneves did everything he needed to do to win his first series championship, but at the end of the day it wasn't enough. He scored an improbable victory at Chicagoland Speedway from 28th and last on the grid, led the most laps, and eked out a photo finish over his title rival, Scott Dixon.
"I'm kind of like speechless, to be honest," said Castroneves, a rarity for the ebullient Brazilian. "I just have to say that it was an incredible race. We were trying everything we could, (Tim Cindric) and I try to keep cool, everything we could to lead the most laps without going crazy, and we did it. Hopefully next year we start like that and finish just a little bit better in the championship."
Initially, the race was called for Dixon by one one-thousandth of a second but after further review from the photo finish camera, Castroneves was declared the race winner by .0033 of a second, the second closest in series history. The initial result would have been the closest in series history but that distinction remains Sam Hornish Jr.'s win over Al Unser Jr. at this track in 2002, .0024 of a second.
"The pylon thing said we won," Dixon said in the immediate aftermath. "That definitely would have topped off the day with a record win. It's the craziest victory circle I've been involved with, with the car going in there and then going out. We definitely wanted to win the race."
Dixon's runner-up finish was enough to secure his second series championship, to go along with the one from 2003. By leading more than five laps, Dixon set the record for most laps led during the season. His runner-up finish meant he finished just shy of scoring a record seventh victory in a season. Instead, his six wins tie with Dan Wheldon for most in IndyCar Series history.
"It's definitely been the toughest two weeks, and Team Penske and Helio wouldn't let it go," Dixon continued. "You've got to tip their hats to them. The year in whole has been amazing, getting married, winning a (Indianapolis) 500 and a championship all in one year. I bet not many can say they've done that."
A further report on all that Dixon has achieved during his title-winning season and in securing team owner Chip Ganassi's first IndyCar Series championship since 2003 will follow in the coming days.
Castroneves set a record for the furthest back to ever win, starting from 28th. It's the second last-to-first result in series history; the other was Buddy Lazier's drive from 26th to win at Phoenix in 2000.
Castroneves and Dixon definitely made the race live up to its billing. Pole sitter Ryan Briscoe completed the podium, with Tony Kanaan and Will Power in the top five. Wheldon finished sixth ahead of Darren Manning, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Danica Patrick. The race was slowed for a record seven times.
Things started primitively with pole sitter Ryan Briscoe leading the first 37 laps, during a stretch when his teammate clawed his way into the top ten. Castroneves' lap 35 pass on Graham Rahal netted him 10th place, and he would fall no further as the race progressed.
The first caution flew on lap 37 when an apparent right front suspension failure launched Ed Carpenter into the wall at turn two. The impact tore the right side off his Vision Racing car. Prior to that, Carpenter improved from 13th to fourth on the grid and was looking for a good result on the oval.
Tony Kanaan, driving a special-liveried yellow car this weekend, took the lead at the first pit stop sequence and held it for the most part until the second caution. Countryman Vitor Meira crashed out of his final start for Panther Racing, ending a frustrating season that sees that elusive first victory still on the to-do list.
Castroneves ascended to the race lead on the second round of stops held under the yellow thanks to great pit work by his team. The ensuing restart produced some of the most exciting racing, with Castroneves, Briscoe and Wheldon all running in tandem. The trio ran three-wide for a number of consecutive laps, Wheldon doing everything he could in his swansong for Chip Ganassi Racing. The top eleven were separated by less than a second.
The lead changed hands several times in that stretch but the pace slowed due to the event's third caution, for debris. Pit lane was chaotic as Graham Rahal exited his pit but contacted the left rear of Buddy Rice's entry. Rice appeared frustrated as he slammed his HANS device down right in front of Rahal's team pit.
Again the green flag stretch didn't last long after the restart with Sarah Fisher incurring a heavy accident on the exit of turn four. She limped out of the car but was checked, cleared and released afterwards in her third start of the year for her family-owned team.
Dixon had been shuffled to the middle of the pack where he was battling series rookies E.J. Viso and Mario Moraes, who were enjoying fantastic runs from 26th and 27th on the grid.
On the restart, Castroneves led Brisoce for a few laps until Kanaan regained the point on lap 132. Dixon was up to fourth when the race's fifth caution flew. Viso's great run ended against the turn four barriers on lap 138, so the year ended as it started for the promising rookie driver - in the wall.
All the leaders pitted for their penultimate stops on lap 140, the lone exception the other Venezuelan in Milka Duno. She restarted in the lead and even held it for a lap under green flag conditions before dropping down the order. Castroneves resumed up front over Briscoe.
Another yellow occurred as Moraes also found the barriers, off of turn four on lap 182. The rapidly improving teenager ran as high as fifth but it was an unfortunate end for the Dale Coyne Racing rookie.
Crucially, the final round of pit stops occurred and Dixon's Ganassi crew delivered the fastest stop. He returned to the track in the lead ahead of the Penske teammates, and for that matter, the entire field.
A final caution occurred when Rahal brushed the wall off turn two. The restart was waved off on consecutive laps and occurred on lap 195, with six laps remaining. Dixon held the point until right before the end of the race, when Castroneves edged past at the line.
Behind Dixon and Castroneves, Kanaan secured third in the championship ahead of Wheldon and Briscoe. Andretti Green Racing teammates Patrick and Marco Andretti are sixth and seventh, with Hunter-Reay, Oriol Servia and Hideki Mutoh completing the top ten in points.
All told, it was a fitting end to a solid season. Technically there is another race on the docket, but it is the non-points event held October 26 in Surfers Paradise. Castroneves won a closely fought battle but Dixon is champion of the yearlong war.