(Our intrepid and worldly IndyCar correspondent and race analyst Matt Lennon offers his insights into an exciting race at Kansas won by Scott Dixon, the first oval race of the season. Enjoy!)
As the final stop before the grandest spectacle in racing, the Kansas Indy provides an opportunity for normally single-car teams who have built a second car and contracted a second driver only for the Indy 500 to give this driver some experience in the car and to get some oval miles under their belts.
For this reason, Sarah Fisher made her first appearance of the year for her own Sarah Fisher Racing in the Dollar-General machine (the car Graham Rahal ran for the first three events of the year). Joining her team for the first of five races this year was Jay Howard, who briefly contested the 2008 IndyCar season for Marty Roth Racing. In addition, John Andretti, cousin of Michael and nephew of Mario, started his first of two IndyCar races of the year driving for Andretti Autosports. Howard and Andretti qualified 21st and 17th respectively for the 200-lap race.
Further news leading into this event was that four series rookies, Takuma Sato, Simona Di Silvestro, Mario Romancini and Bertrand Baguette were making their IndyCar oval race debuts.
Coming into Kansas, the first of four consecutive oval events, Will Power held a 42 point lead in the Drivers Championship to his nearest rival, team-mate Helio Castroneves. Not known for his oval racing experience, Power was quick to shrug off any suggestions he may be at a disadvantage in this discipline.
From the green-flag, pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe held position through Turn 1, with Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti right behind. With multiple racing lines available on an oval, positions were being swapped and swapped-back in quick succession through the field. On Lap 15, Dixon caught the marbles on the outside, sending him high up the track, forcing him to lift off to regain his line. This allowed Dario Franchitti to move past into 2nd position.
The Top 5 of Briscoe, Franchitti, Dixon, Vitor Meira and Helio Castroneves, after 20 laps had managed to open up a 4 second gap to 6th place Tony Kanaan, who had a cluster of cars bunched up right behind. By Lap 28, Scott Dixon has re-taken 2nd place from Franchitti and was reeling in Briscoe, and by Lap 33, caught the slipstream and passed through the low-side in Turn 4. Dixon didn’t stop there however, as he took advantage of the clear air and quickly opened up a 2-second gap.
At the back of the field, one driver receiving mention for his uncharacteristically poor performance was Dan Wheldon. The twice-winner of this event, in 2007 and 2008, started at the back due to a penalty and everyone expected him to use his experience and good record at this circuit to mount a charge through the field toward the front. This is not what happened, and by quarter-distance, Wheldon was languishing in 24th position and a lap down on the leaders.
The race had been held under green-flag conditions to this point, and the first round of pit stops came on Lap 50, with Scott Dixon maintaining his lead.
The first caution of the day came on Lap 73, when E.J Viso from KV Racing got a bit loose in Turn 4 and lightly brushed the outer-retaining wall, damaging his suspension. While he managed to make it back to the pit lane, he spread a little bit of debris on the circuit, and the pace car was deployed to allow a clean-up. This sent some cars in for a fuel top-up. Milka Duno and Takuma Sato emerged from their pit-stalls very close together, and touched wheels as they rejoined the circuit, sending both across the grass. The race soon restarted once all were back in line.
Ryan Briscoe was forced to re-pit almost immediately upon the restart as he felt a vibration on the back of the car and thought there was a problem. It turned out to be simply a loose wheel-nut but it was enough to put the Penske crowd-favourite a lap down.
Patrick was a mobile chicane – not wise on ovals!
At least Moraes didn’t collide with this Andretti!
Helio Castroneves by about Lap 120, upon lapping slower cars, was having trouble getting past the slower Danica Patrick. In the drivers meeting prior to the race, all had agreed that when being lapped, they would stay on the low side, however Danica was alternating racing lines, with Helio furiously weaving behind her to show his displeasure before finally managing to slip past.
Back at the front, Scott Dixon’s car was running beautifully, allowing him to re-open his 2-second gap to 2nd placed Dario Franchitti. Then, right on cue, another caution period – this time for more debris on the race-track, which turned out to be a few pieces of front- wing assembly carelessly left behind by someone who felt like scraping the wall. This sent the leaders in for their final stops while many of those already a lap down would stay out to regain their lost lap.
Following the stops, with 50 laps to go, oval debutant Takuma Sato was highlighted as currently running in 6th place, and for added credibility, dicing with long-time oval racing specialist Helio Castroneves for 5th place. Very impressive for his debut oval outing.
Lap 178 – Series rookie Jay Howard (above left) crashes heavily into the outside wall at Turn 4, spewing damage across the track. The third caution period of the day was out and those cars that didn’t pit earlier took this as their opportunity, maintaining their gained lap from the previous caution period. At the restart, before the field had even reached Turn 1, all of Japan’s interest in this event evaporated on the spot as Hideki Mutoh and Takuma Sato touched wheels, sending both heavily into the wall (above right). The accident occurred as Mutoh was running on the higher-line, whereas Sato thought he could get past by running higher still. This proved to be too small of a gap to fit through and saw both cars retire on impact. Both drivers were running well inside the Top 10 by this point.
Upon the final restart, Dixon powered off into the distance, opening up a 2-second lead for the third time, and upon completion of the final 20 laps, took the chequered flag ahead of Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay, with Ryan Briscoe the final lead-lap finisher in 6th place. With this win, Dixon jumped to 2nd in the drivers championship behind Will Power, who finished 12th, 2 laps down.
In other news, a new IndyCar innovation was announced at this event whereby the series would, in addition to the overall championship, recognise an annual champion for each type of circuit visited by the series during the year – A road-course champion and an oval-course champion. With points being calculated retrospectively back to the beginning of the season, this put Will Power in a commanding lead for the Road Course Championship, while Scott Dixon’s win in Kansas placed him in the lead after Round 1 of the Oval-Course Championship. An overall series champion will still be crowned at the end of the year and this remains the ultimate goal for all series participants.
From here, the “month of May” build-up begins and in less than 4 weeks, the Indianapolis 500 will again add a new name, or perhaps a repeated name, to the coveted Borg-Warner trophy.
Click here for the Final Standings of the race.
Click here for the current Championship Standings.
[Images via AUTOSPORT]