FORT WORTH, Texas — When it came to safety and racing on the 1.5-mile ovals the two most outspoken drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series were Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson. Both drivers worked with IndyCar officials to develop rules and regulations with the new Dallara DW12 chassis that would end “Pack Racing” and prevent the scenario that happened at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when Dan Wheldon was killed in a massive crash Oct. 16.
So it was only fitting that in the first IndyCar Series race on a 1.5-mile oval since Wheldon’s death that Wilson and Rahal would battle it out for the victory.
Rahal appeared headed to victory lane for the second time in his career before he brushed the wall off the fourth turn wall on Lap 226 of the 228-lap race. Wilson was able to make the pass for the lead on the backstretch and stayed in front for the final 1-1/2 laps to claim his seventh IndyCar victory but his first on an oval in Saturday night’s Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway.,
It was a “Driver’s Race” rather than a “Pack Race” and that is just what Wilson and Rahal hoped to accomplish in the wake of Wheldon’s death last October.
“We both wanted to put it back into the driver’s hands and have these guys push it a little harder and drive it more and overall that is what happened,” Rahal said. “It was the type of race that it should be. It was kinda cool that it came down between me and Justin. I didn’t want it to end that way and didn’t want to finish second but that is the way it ended unfortunately.
“I thought the race was good,” Rahal said after his brush with the wall cost him a victory. “I know how I dropped at one point and how I went forward at one point. But that is much more the way it should be. You had to drive it. A guy like Scott Dixon made a mistake and that never happens. It was tough out there but that is the way it should be. You can flat-out tell this race was a lot harder and I think that is good.”
For Wilson, the former Formula One driver from Sheffield, England, he achieved a major goal of winning a race on an oval track for the first time in his career. That’s what he wanted to accomplish when he became an IndyCar Series competitor after the merger between Champ Car and IndyCar in February 2008.
With so much fear and trepidation among the drivers heading into Saturday night’s race, the contest was another major hurdle for the series to overcome as it attempts to move forward.
“I think all the drivers were concerned, concerned of the unknown,” Wilson said. “Some people overreact, some people are a bit more laid back, and as a group I was trying to manage that situation. I think IndyCar did a fantastic job. We came here with a great package, and it allowed for people to come and go throughout the race. We weren’t just glued to the racetrack and flat out waiting for something to happen. You’re actually racing each other.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had on an oval. Obviously I won so I’m going to feel a bit biased towards it. But I think it was a great package. I think it was as safe as motivating goes but still high stakes; you can’t afford to make a mistake out there.”
Wilson led two times for 11 laps in a race where Target/Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon was in front three times for 133 laps before his car lost control on its own and crashed in Turn 4 on lap 174. At that point, Dixon’s Dallara/Honda appeared to be the class of the field and the two-time IndyCar Series champion appeared to be on his way to his second-straight victory.
“We just got loose,” Dixon explained. “We had been getting loose at the end of stints. For the last 10 laps of that last stint I was just really fighting to hold on. That time there I kind of got in the middle of a few people we trying to lap and I was trying to get back up to Will Power there. I turned in and the rear just started to slide and I kind of dipped down onto the apron and shut around again. I feel bad for the guys. We had a really good car and I think we had a good chance to win here tonight.”
After Dixon’s crash Will Power blocked Tony Kanaan on the backstretch in a three-wide battle that also included Ryan Briscoe on Lap 184. The contact broke the front wing on Kanaan’s car and he had to come onto pit road to replace the front nose three laps later. Kanaan was furious with Power and radioed to his crew that he was going to confront him after the race. INDYCAR race director Beaux Barfield issued a drive through penalty to Power for the incident and that cost the Team Penske driver a chance at winning the race.
Power would finish eighth and Kanaan 11th.
True to his word, Kanaan climbed out of the car and ran down pit road to vent his anger at Power, but it was quickly quelled when Power apologized for the incident.
“I said sorry to him because I blocked him,” Power said. “I felt bad for him. That was an easy win for us,” Power said. “Shoot, man. We had a great car and it’s the first time I’ve ever had to drive on an oval where you had to lift and slide and save your tires. In the past you are allowed to come down the line and Beaux said in the driver meeting if you come off low you can stay low. It’s unfortunate though. It’s real confusing when some people get warnings and others don’t. You just want to know where you stand.
“All I can say is I through a win away there.”
Once Kanaan cooled down he explained his role in the incident.
“We had a problem on the pit stop and he put the biggest block ever on the oval and that was not good,” Kanaan said. “He talks about safety all the time and that move to me was unacceptable. We talked about it. I had a busy day and busy night but we had a pretty good car and could have won this race. It was a good battle but Will spoiled it and he paid the price. It was unfortunate.
“I said on the radio if Will doesn’t get penalized I’m going to be waiting on him.”
Using a car that was much more difficult to driver because of aerodynamics and downforce changes from the older chassis there were 10 lead changes among seven drivers.
The top two cars were Dallara/Hondas. Ryan Briscoe finished third in a Dallara/Chevrolet for Team Penske followed by James Hinchcliffe’s Dallara/Chevrolet for Andretti Autosport and J.R. Hildebrand’s Dallara/Chevrolet for Panther Racing.
It was a fairly safe race with just four caution periods for 32 laps.
That the race was decided between Wilson and Rahal was fitting although the young Rahal said it’s a loss that will stick with him until he finally gets another victory. As for Wilson, he was able to deliver team owner Dale Coyne his second IndyCar Series win – the first since Wilson drove Coyne’s car to victory at Watkins Glen in 2009.
“We both had talked a lot about it, that when we parted at the end of 2009 and we both kicked ourselves and wondered why we did that, and it takes a lot of things to make a team gel,” Coyne said. “I can’t say enough about our engineering staff. We didn’t test here. Just about everybody else has come here and tested sometime with this new car. We never tested here. We came here to run race setups every session. We ran race setups in qualifying because we had to learn how to make that car last the whole session, the whole stint, and I think that’s what paid off. I think we just used our heads on the engineering side for what little time we had here, and obviously it paid off great tonight.”
Wilson had to work for his victory by hustling the car around the oval – just like racing is supposed to be.
“It goes back to earlier, how a lot of drivers were nervous just because they didn’t know what was going to happen and how it was going to race,” Wilson said. “You’ve got to change the driving style. This car reacts different. It’s a little bit more of a handful, which I think is good because it makes the racing more interesting. We just kept working on it, kept trying to make the car better, trying to control what was happening, whether it was the entry, the middle or the exit. Just keep working on it and try not to get too distracted about where we stack up and where everyone else is and how fast they’re going and how do we get there. We just said, okay, this is going to be a long race, how do we manage our race the best we can. At times I was thinking how do we stay on the lead lap?
“As good as the Firestone tires are, you can’t get any tire to last in a four wheel drift at 215 miles an hour at Texas. It’s going to wear anything out. So we knew about two thirds of the way through the stint people would start to drop off, and we wanted to make sure that wasn’t us.”
Saturday night’s race could be the final time the IZOD IndyCar Series competes at Texas Motor Speedway. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard has been less than enthusiastic about striking a deal with TMS president and general manager Eddie Gossage about a return to the 1.5-mile oval.
But if it were up to the top three drivers they would gladly return with the current rules package.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Wilson said. “People were nervous, but as soon as the cars went on track, everyone calmed down. I think also a lot of credit to IndyCar and the way they heard everybody’s opinion, everyone got to talk about it, and just talking about it calmed everybody down. Once they realized, okay, my mind isn’t driving me crazy and it’s a problem, they calmed down and we came up with some good solutions, and I thought it was fantastic.
“Obviously I won the race, but I had a lot of fun out there. I thought it was the best run I’ve had on an oval.”
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