The points lead changed once again as Dario Franchitti led flag-to-flag from pole position en route to his fourth victory of the IndyCar Series season. The Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver avenged his prior struggles on the road courses and led...
The points lead changed once again as Dario Franchitti led flag-to-flag from pole position en route to his fourth victory of the IndyCar Series season. The Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver avenged his prior struggles on the road courses and led home Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske in Sunday's race at Sonoma, Calif.'s Infineon Raceway.
"Track position was critical today," Franchitti said. "I did what I had to do to get out front. We stuck to our pit strategy. There were a couple hairy moments out there but this is critical and crucial for the championship."
Speaking of said championship chase between Franchitti, Briscoe, and Scott Dixon, Franchitti gained 13 points to within four markers of Briscoe for the series lead. If a coin had three sides it would be an appropriate description of this year's title chase, the championship lead changing hands for the 13th time in 14 races.
Briscoe, for his part, admitted frustration at his seventh runner-up finish of the season and said winning at least one of the final three races is crucial to capturing the crown.
"If we're going to win this championship, I'm going to have to win one of the last three," he said. "Dario got maximum points today, he's right there and Dixon stumbled. Coming in second gets old a little bit, but I know we're up there."
Dixon was a non-factor in today's race after a poor starting position and being involved in accidents at both the start and finish of the race. He was credited with a 13th-place finish.
From 12th on the grid Dixon was among those bottled up in a first lap fracas, and after recovering to eighth by the final lap he was punted by Marco Andretti and fell to 14th. He now drops 20 points behind Briscoe, third in the title chase. Andretti was penalized shortly after the checkered flag to behind Dixon for causing avoidable contact.
"We made a few passes on quite a few people, and he got into the back of me and spun me around," Dixon described the afternoon. "He came up after and apologized though, he said he didn't mean to do it. As far as our strategy, we tried to catch a yellow to vault up, but we ended up in the same position."
Andretti was also involved in triggering the day's biggest incident. As Graham Rahal attempted a pass for fourth place on the opening lap, at turn 2, Andretti chopped down and Rahal was stuck in the middle of the road. The bottleneck effect meant several drivers chased to the gravel to avoid the accident while others incurred some kind of damage.
When all was said and done drivers involved included Rahal, Dixon, E.J. Viso, Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick, Raphael Matos, Franck Montagny, Justin Wilson and Richard Antinucci. Viso, who rode over Kanaan's car, was the only driver eliminated from the race as a result of the incident.
The chaos also vaulted a number of drivers with poor starting positions forward, chief among them the returning Mario Moraes of KV Racing, as well as Dan Wheldon, Mike Conway, Hideki Mutoh.
Wheldon fell back to 12th by the checkers, but the other three big movers all stayed in the top five and ten for the rest of the race. In fact, after the final caution flag caused when the right front suspension broke on Helio Castroneves', Conway was on a charge.
The British rookie restarted fifth but passed both the fading Mutoh and Moraes to get onto the podium. Conway eclipsed his personal best result of sixth set earlier this year at Watkins Glen to earn Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's first podium finish since Briscoe achieved the feat at "The Glen" in 2006.
"The car worked great today," Conway said. "We had a puncture in the first corner and had to come back as fast as we could. It was the case of getting close to Mario (Moraes) and capitalizing on mistakes. I split to the inside on Mutoh and it was just enough to get by him."
For his part, Moraes was finally able to turn his blistering speed this season into a result. The best career finish for the 20-year-old Brazilian came after he missed Mid-Ohio because his father passed away. Moraes' previous best result was seventh at Watkins Glen last year, and his best this season was ninth at Milwaukee.
"I tried to be out of trouble in the first lap," Moraes said, after gaining seven positions on the first lap. "The guys did a great job today. The last two weeks have been difficult for me and it was hard to keep focused with everything going through my mind."
Mutoh completed the top five, tops in the Andretti Green Racing five-car camp. His fifth place was his second consecutive, as he also achieved the result last race at Mid-Ohio.
The rest of the top ten was Oriol Servia in his second start for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, Wilson, Kanaan, Matos and Robert Doornbos, in his second go this year for HVM Racing.
Wilson had an eventful race, starting 22nd and last in the field after a last-minute switch to start on Firestone's primary tire, the blacks. He had three sets of new alternates, the reds, available for use and worked them to his advantage. Passing cars on the notoriously difficult to pass circuit was Wilson's M.O. all day.
It almost didn't end as well as it did. Wilson dived down to Servia's inside at turn 11 only to lock up and spin out. He narrowly missed hitting Mutoh in the process, but he didn't stall and recovered as he lit up the tires.
"At that point I just wanted to get going again!" Wilson said. "It was a fun race. We felt that (starting last) was our best chance of making something happen. Maybe if we started in our usual spot, we would have got taken out on the first lap."
Others of note -- Andretti came home 11th but was penalized for his role in the Dixon accident, Antinucci ran tantalizingly close to the top ten for the underfunded Curb/Agajanian Team 3G effort but finished 15th, and last car running was unsurprisingly Milka Duno in 17th, who added only to the race as a moving chicane, nothing more.
Montagny, making his IndyCar Series debut in the fifth AGR car, struggled despite an eighth place starting position. He collided with Antinucci at one point and that set him off the road with suspension damage.
Castroneves went out with a broken suspension that likely came after contact with his countryman Kanaan earlier in the race. At the same time, Ryan Hunter-Reay went out of the race, stopping on track.
Overall it was a landmark day for Franchitti. He ended a string of poor results, by his and the team's lofty standards, on permanent road courses. He hadn't finished better than third on such a circuit this season.
By leading all 75 laps, Franchitti accomplished the feat for the first time since his teammate Scott Dixon did in a rain-shortened, 206-lap race at Richmond in 2003. It is his 22nd win in his open-wheel (CART and IndyCar combined) career, tying him with Castroneves and Emerson Fittipaldi for 14th all-time.
Only the top four have a mathematical shot at the title but it is realistically three. There is no rest for the weary as the final stretch of ovals begins Saturday night at the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.