Rahal steals sensational victory from Hinchcliffe

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Rahal steals sensational victory from Hinchcliffe
David Malsher
By: David Malsher
Aug 28, 2016, 3:46 AM

James Hinchcliffe dominated the remaining 177 laps of the interrupted Firestone 600, but in a fraught three-way battle for honors over the closing laps, it was Graham Rahal who landed his first victory of the season.

Race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Car of Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Car of Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in the garage
Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Race action
Race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda with his wife, Courtney Force
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Race winner Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

Restarting the 2.5-month-old Firestone 600 from Lap 72, Andretti Autosport’s Hunter-Reay took the lead after a lap, with Team Penske’s Will Power in second, chased by the two Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Hondas of Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin, but soon Ed Carpenter slotted into fourth, with Hinchcliffe then passing Power for second. Behind came Helio Castroneves, Graham Rahal and a stunningly aggressive Tony Kanaan – up from 16th to seventh within just two laps!

Hinchcliffe repassed Hunter-Reay on Lap 79, as Carpenter battled with Power over fourth, before both were passed by Castroneves, a four-time Texas Motor Speedway winner, on Lap 85. Rahal, too, would move past the 2014 Texas winner and 2014 champion on Lap 87.

Castroneves kept moving forward and became Hinchcliffe’s closest challenger on Lap 90 and the pair of them started to inch away from their nearest rivals so that Castroneves was one second clear of third-placed Rahal by Lap 100.

Meanwhile Andretti Autosport’s leading hope, Hunter-Reay. started falling back from Lap 95 and pitted on Lap 101. When he emerged from the pits, he immediately set and reset his fastest time of the race. It would prove a false dawn.

Practice pacesetters Kanaan and Dixon, with championship leader Simon Pagenaud in close pursuit, were in the top 10 by Lap 105, although TK was 2.2sec adrift of fifth-placed Power.

Castroneves and Aleshin dived for the pits on Lap 110, and Helio’s temporary disappearance left Rahal in second but 5.8sec off leader Hinchcliffe who was already proving the class of the field. Carpenter pitted two laps later, along with the Ganassi cars of Kanaan and Charlie Kimball.

Rahal, Pagenaud and Munoz hit pitlane on Lap 114, and Power and Dixon did the same on 115. Meanwhile early stoppers Castroneves and Hunter-Reay had been setting 211mph laps on their fresh rubber – some five mph faster than most of their rivals, and thus found themselves second and third respectively after all had been through pitlane.

Yet by leaving his pitstop until 120, Hinchliffe proved his pre-race comments regarding how kind his car was to its tires were clearly no exaggeration. His 206mph laps before stopping meant he emerged not in the lead, but behind the flying Castroneves but 212-213mph laps sent the #5 SPM-Honda back to the front by Lap 126.

At this point, it seemed there were only two cars in it. Hunter-Reay was tumbling backward again after taking the bloom off his tires and by Lap 133 he had fallen out of the Top 10. That left Power holding off Carpenter, Kanaan, Dixon and Pagenaud, with Carlos Munoz and Aleshin next up.

On Lap 143, Castroneves pitted once more – just about able to match Hinchcliffe for ultimate pace but nowhere near him in terms of rubber longevity. That left the Schmidt car up front by over 10sec. Carpenter’s strong long-run pace had moved him back to P2 followed by Rahal and Power.

Behind Power, his title rival and teammate Pagenaud had the bit between his teeth, and had deposed Kanaan and Dixon with 100 laps of the 248 still to go. That prompted TK to head into the pits while “original” polesitter Carlos Munoz did likewise.

On Lap 152, Pagenaud, Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya pitted, and a lap later Power also stopped, eager to get onto fresh rubber and thus match Pagenaud’s new-tire advantage. It wasn’t enough to keep the #12 ahead, however, and Power had to pass his teammate on track. Kanaan, who had stopped before both, was ahead of both.

Carpenter was able to go to Lap 159 before making his pitstop, but again it was Hinchcliffe who could stretch longest, clicking off Lap 163 before getting serviced.  After everyone had stopped, the Indy 500 polesitter found himself still holding a handy 5.5sec lead. Yet this time around, rather than flaunt his pace advantage, he appeared content to just preserve his tires even better and extend his lead more gradually.

Carpenter was nine seconds adrift on Lap 183, and while Castroneves was third at the start of the stint, he headed to the pits with handling difficulties and an early pitstop. That left Rahal in third, five seconds behind Carpenter but 2.5 ahead of Kanaan who led Power by 5.5sec, with Dixon and Pagenaud closing in.

Dixon finally got around Power for fifth on Lap 193, and Aleshin and Kimball soon followed suit, leaving Power, Pagenaud, Castroneves and Montoya running in a Penske 7-8-9-10.

Kanaan ducked out of fourth on Lap 197 for fuel and tires, and three laps later teammate Dixon and Power did the same, with Pagenaud, Kimball and Montoya following them in short order. Again Power emerged behind Pagenaud, but again he got past… but this time only temporarily. But by this time, the pair of them were squabbling over ninth and tenth, and the show was still being stolen by Hinchcliffe. Despite stopping two laps later than Carpenter, and therefore missing out on the fresh rubber advantage, he was still able to hold the lead.

However, Carpenter had a bigger concern on Lap 213, as his left-rear made contact with Dixon’s right-front wing, sending the #9 Ganassi car into the wall at Turn 1 and bringing out the first caution of the evening. The incident was put under review but no action was taken.

Castroneves, Kanaan, Rahal, Aleshin, Kimball, Pagenaud, Power and Munoz all hit pitlane once the pits were opened, but Hinchcliffe and Carpenter stayed out. Maybe that was a fateful move for the latter, because on the Lap 220 restart, Carpenter was hassling Hinchcliffe for the lead, chased by Castroneves, Kanaan, Rahal, Aleshin, Pagenaud, Kimball, Munoz and Power. However, a rear-end wiggle – perhaps caused by a puncture from his contact with Dixon – forced Carpenter to suddenly lose momentum and get clipped by Castroneves, and send him into the wall.

Throughout the inevitable yellow that followed, Castroneves kept ducking into the pits to allow the #3 Penske team to repair the damage to his car, and Aleshin pitted too. Such had been Hinchcliffe’s pace that he had now put all but the top five a lap down.

The restart on Lap 230 gave Kanaan a chance to tackle the leader, as they passed the lapped car of Andretti’s Alexander Rossi. But on Lap 231, the full course cautions, flew again as now Aleshin threw his race away, drifting high and collecting Jack Hawksworth’s AJ Foyt Racing-Honda.

That left the order Hinchcliffe, Kanaan, Rahal, Castroneves on the lead lap, Pagenaud, Munoz, Kimball and Power one lap down, and Montoya, Bourdais and Rossi two laps down.

Kanaan and Pagenaud elected to stop under this yellow and most of those behind chose to follow their example. However, Rahal and Castroneves stayed on track and moved up to second and third.

The Lap 240 restart saw Rahal tucked right behind Hinchcliffe, desperate to find a way through, but instead Castroneves and Kanaan gained momentum on Rahal. However, Castroneves drifted up and bounced Rahal into the Ganassi car, allowing Pagenaud to pass all three of them for second place.

Rahal was having none of that, and made it four-wide down the front straight next time by and that was enough to intimidate Pagenaud into thinking in championship terms.

That left Hinchcliffe, Kanaan and Rahal to punch hard and fast over the final four laps, ducking and diving all around the 1.5-mile course. At the checkered flag it was Rahal who raised his fist in triumph, just eight thousandths of a second ahead of the night’s dominator Hinchcliffe who in turn was eight-hundredths ahead of Kanaan.

Pagenaud’s fourth place may yet prove crucial in the title battle. With Pocono winner Power in eighth, the championship gap stretched back out from 20 to 28 points. Between these two Penske-mounted title contenders were their teammate Castroneves salvaging fifth after a fraught night, Kimball and, the top Andretti car of Munoz.

Behind, Montoya, Bourdais and Rossi were two laps down, with Andretti, Hunter-Reay and Chaves three laps behind the winner.

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