Dan Wheldon improbably won the SunTrust Indy Challenge at Richmond International Raceway tonight, coming from 20th on the 22-car Indy Racing League IndyCar Series grid in his ...
Dan Wheldon improbably won the SunTrust Indy Challenge at Richmond International Raceway tonight, coming from 20th on the 22-car Indy Racing League IndyCar Series grid in his #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda to take a one-lap shootout in this caution-impacted 250-lap contest.
It wasn't quite a shootout, as the Indy Racing League discovered during the final lap, as the track's yellow lights were never extinguished, negating passes on what was considered the final lap under green - but wasn't. That meant the finishing order reverted to the caution grouping, which placed Vitor Meira second in the #17 Team Centrix Panoz G Force/Honda and polesitter Helio Castroneves, who passed Meira on that final lap, third in the #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota.
Confused? So was everyone else at the track who saw the winner they thought had earned victory attempt to do winner's doughnuts on a minimal amount of methanol in his tank. Wheldon had run 129 laps on one tank of methanol and his team wasn't exactly sure he had enough to raise smoke from his Firestone tires.
"I have to thank Tony Cotman and the entire Andretti Green Racing crew for this finish. I could run a lot of laps on the tires and the car got better and better," Wheldon revealed. "To qualify 20th and come through and win, I know Tony and the guys called a great race."
During their pre-race strategy meeting, the team reminded all four drivers not to panic if they got close to going a lap down. For Wheldon that was nearly a reality as then-leader Sam Hornish Jr. came up to pass him after an early pit stop placed the Briton out of sequence. "I was fortunate not to be in traffic much and the laps were pretty competitive tonight," Wheldon said. "The guys gave me track position."
Meira thought initially he had finished third after being passed on the final lap by Castroneves but was still pleased with the result. "We were on a different strategy from everybody else. When we had the white and green flag, I restarted normally but the yellow kept blinking. I didn't get a good jump because my spotter told me 'still yellow, still yellow' but when Helio passed me, I realized there must have been a mistake so I got on the gas."
Castroneves believed that, with one lap of green he had a chance, not only to pass Meira but to catch and pass Wheldon, to boot. "I knew there was only one lap and I went for it. I was so confident," the polesitter said, "and when the pace car pulled off, I knew it was going to go green. I was so focused, I didn't see anything (including the flashing yellow lights). I just went for it."
There were still 15 cars running at the close of a race that saw seven caution periods, yet had the fastest average speed of the four contests held at this .75-mile bullring, 114.589mph.
Tony Kanaan was originally said to take fourth place but, with the changes pulled back to fifth. Still, he padded his point lead in the #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda, while teammate Bryan Herta, running fourth at the caution maintained that spot in his #7 XM Satellite Radio Dallara/Honda, giving Andretti Green Racing three of four cars in the top five.
"We got what we could," Kanaan admitted. "We couldn't gamble like Dan, so I'm happy for him." Herta agreed that "we had great cars and we split the strategy there, so Dan took the risk and it worked out for them."
Buddy Rice, winner of the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race was sixth in the #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz G Force/Honda and admitted, "The car wasn't what we were hoping for tonight; it was sliding too much. At the end I didn't have the [newer] tires to hold off Tony and Bryan."
Adrian Fernandez' #5 Quaker State/Telmex Panoz G Force/Honda, making his first Richmond start was unsettled yesterday by the small, fast track but persevered to take seventh place. "It was a good race," he said. "The car was consistent and we had good pit stops."
2003 Richmond winner Scott Dixon in the #1 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota earned eighth place and noted, "The car was pretty good at the start but for whatever reason I started to have difficulty passing. I had quite a bit of oversteer when I got close to anyone so traffic became my biggest issue."
Scott Sharp's #8 Delphi Dallara/Toyota took ninth after qualifying 17th and "salvaged a good result" after dealing with an oversteering car early in the race. Felipe Giaffone, running the #24 Purex/Aventis Dallara/Chevrolet to a tenth place finish, was best of the Bow-Tie Brigade. "We just didn't have enough time to get the car exactly where I wanted," Giaffone said.
As is customary at this track, the action was fast and furious. The first caution came on lap 10 when Alex Barron got pushed into the wall by rookie Kosuke Matsuura, ending the Californian's day in his #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevy. It was an awful follow-up from his third place finish two weeks ago in Texas.
After a caution for debris and another for a smattering of moisture, the next activity came on lap 132 when Darren Manning ran out of race track and brought the #10 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota in for the night after qualifying a good 11th. Manning blamed veteran Scott Sharp for "messing about. He just checked me and Sam [Hornish Jr.] up."
By that time Al Unser Jr. had already parked an ill-handling #20 Patrick Racing Dallara/Chevrolet to the pleasure of the balance of the field and the track went green until lap 189 when Hornish Jr., in the #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota and Tomas Scheckter's #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevy got together while battling for fourth place. Scheckter was done for the day but Hornish continued to finish 13th.
(Tora Takagi had been called in by Mo Nunn Racing on lap 158 and parked the #12 Pioneer Dallara/Toyota after being a rolling chicane, much like Unser Jr.)
On lap 222 third-starter Mark Taylor, in the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevy got together with Dario Franchitti's #27 Arca/Ex Dallara/Honda in Turn 2 and that was it for the rookie, while Scot Franchitti continued with a warped rear wing. Franchitti would finish 12th and Taylor was credited with 18th, a huge fall from grace.
The final caution came about due to Greg Ray, whose #13 Renovac Panoz G Force/Honda spent much of the night holding up other drivers. Virtually impossible to overtake, Ray made a move that took out Ed Carpenter's #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevrolet and the stepson of IRL owner Tony George had a few things to say about it: "It was a stupid move that Greg Ray tried to pull. He was five laps down and should have just parked his car instead of taking me out of the race. I had a car good enough to finish seventh," Carpenter insisted.
The starter was slow to call yellow for their incident and the track was slow to pull that yellow for a single lap shoot-out, which meant that the race - instead of ending with a one-lap sprint to the checkered flags that fans saw - actually ended under yellow. Bizarre? Yes, but the way things go in short oval racing.
The IndyCar Series has just a few days to recuperate from all this action and continue on to the next race at Kansas Speedway on July 4th. As they go on their way, Kanaan holds 240 first place points, followed by tonight's winner Wheldon with 225, Castroneves (181), Rice with 172 and Scott Dixon rounds out the top five points holders with 146.
Next Sunday's Argent Mortgage Kansas Indy 300 will be broadcast live on ABC at 12:30PM EDT. With six races down and 10 to go, this Indy Racing League IndyCar Series season is anyone's to win or lose. "These are the weekends that make champions," claimed Andretti Green Racing team co-owner Michael Andretti. And he should know.