For the first seven races of the season, Team Penske had been watching everyone else win races. You knew that it was just a matter of time before they broke through for their first win of the season and they did it in a big way in Texas. Helio Castroneves didn’t just win his first race of the season but dominated the field en route to the win which made him the seventh winner in eight races this season.
The race started with a different Penske car on the pole. It was surprise pole winner Will Power who led the field to the green flag but he didn’t even lead the first lap. Marco Andretti powered around Power’s outside in Turn 1 and 2 to take a lead that he would hold to the first round of pit stops.
The race’s second caution came out in the middle of a set of green flag pit stops. It couldn’t have come at a worse time for Andretti who had just made a rather slow pit stop as the caution came out. That put Will Power at the head of the field for the first time but that was once again short-lived as Ryan Hunter-Reay took the lead on pit road.
Hunter-Reay led for most of the stint. However, with the cars having low downforce and the tires designed to fall off over the course of a stint, RHR fell back quickly at the end of the second stint. Once again, it was teammate Andretti who took the lead before pit stops.
The big winner on the second round of pit stops was Helio Castroneves. Helio was getting more life out of his tires than anyone else in the field. While he was still seeing massive performance drop-offs like everyone else, he was able to manage his tires so that staying out longer didn’t penalize him as much as the likes of Hunter-Reay. Staying out just a couple of laps longer than Marco allowed him to take the lead.
From there, Castroneves’ car was dialled in as the sun set and track temperatures started to cool. While Andretti had the fastest car at the start of the race, he didn’t have to advantage under the lights that he did in the daylight. From there, Castroneves went on to win the race virtually uncontested as he led the final 132 laps of the 228 lap race.
The win for Castroneves ended a twelve race winless drought which started after his win in Edmonton in July of last season. While a lot was made of Penske not winning a race so far this season, they had only gone winless for the last nine races before this weekend. Ryan Hunter-Reay came home in second after getting the car better dialled in over the course of the race. Tony Kanaan made a late pitstop that gave him fresh enough rubber to climb to third. Oval specialist Ed Carpenter and Marco Andretti rounded out the top five.
Dario Franchitti was the highest finishing Honda runner in 6th. So much for that Honda comeback I was touting after Detroit. Will Power fell from the pole to 7th but it just never seemed like his day anyway. Josef Newgarden is quietly putting together an impressive season with his fourth top ten of the year after this 8th place finish. James Hinchcliffe crossed the line 9th and teammate EJ Viso rounded out the top ten.
I can’t believe that I forgot to mention this last week but there was a little activity in the driver market apart from Mike Conway taking over Ana Beatriz’s seat for the Detroit weekend.
J.R. Hildebrand was dropped from the #4 National Guard car of Panther Racing two days before the track opened for the Dual in Detroit. It’s been reported that the team wasn’t happy with Hildebrand’s performance through the first four races of the season. That was exacerbated by what the Indianapolis Star’s Curt Cavin referred to as “the most embarrassing moment in Panther Racing history” when Hildebrand crashed out on Lap 4 of the Indianapolis 500. I would have called losing the race with a last corner of the last lap crash in 2011 embarrassing but apparently having National Guard troops’ reaction to a crash replayed on the national race broadcast is worse.
Last week, it was Ryan Briscoe who drew in for Panther. However, he won’t be the permanent replacement yet as he’s busy with sports car duties that includes a trip to Le Mans this year. Oriol Servia ran the #4 car this weekend and will be back for the Iowa Indy 250. Who runs the car next week in Milwaukee is to be determined.
Speaking of open seats, it appears that a lack of sponsorship has cost Ana Beatriz her seat in the #18 Dale Coyne Racing machine. Coyne’s Sonny’s BBQ restaurant chain was on the side of the #18 car last weekend in Detroit but it certainly paid off after Mike Conway scored that win and a third in his two starts.
This weekend, it was Pippa Mann returning to the car after taking a week off. She ran the third Coyne car at Indy where she finished 30th after an early crash. The #18 car managed to do a bit better with a 15th-place finish with Beatriz at the wheel.
Plans going forward for the #18 car haven’t been finalized but it has been speculated that Coyne will offer the #18 to Conway for the Toronto double-header. Depending on Conway’s sports car schedule, he could find himself with a ride for all of the remaining road course races this season.
In news that shouldn’t surprise anyone, IndyCar is still looking to get an event at Road America. The iconic four-mile road course was a staple of Champ Car for years before it fell off the American open-wheel schedule as a result of the merger in 2008.
IndyCar VP of Business Affairs, Matt Breeden, said that the series wouldn’t rule out a return to Elkhart Lake if the situation worked out. The issues that still need to be worked out are sanctioning fees and a date for the event given that Road America is just 60 miles from the Milwaukee Mile. IndyCar’s promotion contract with Milwaukee and Andretti Promotions was reported to effectively give Milwaukee protection from another event in the state of Wisconsin for 2012 only.
While I’m not going to get into sanctioning fees, there are two dates that Road America are likely targeting to get IndyCar to the track. Road America currently runs two major weekend events (the SCCA run-offs take up a full four days of running). The first is the NASCAR Nationwide Series race in June and the other is the ALMS race in August. This year wouldn’t be do-able in Elkhart because August has an ALMS and Grand-Am double-header. Next year has only one sports car race given the merger into United SportsCar Racing so there will be an opening at Road America next year to run. Don’t be surprised to see IndyCar run with USR in a back-to-back weekend with Mid-Ohio.
The next round of the 2013 IndyCar Series will be the series’ second of four-straight oval races and the fifth race in four weeks, though you could also call it the fourth race meeting in as many weeks. The cars will return to the flat one-mile concrete oval known as the Milwaukee Mile for the Milwaukee IndyFest.
Historically, Milwaukee is a track that has favoured the Andretti and Ganassi cars. Last year, it was Ryan Hunter-Reay who took home the race in Michael Andretti’s first year of promoting the race. However, Dario Franchitti often brings a fast car to Milwaukee. If he and the Ganassi team are going to break through for a win, the two places I’d put money on him are Toronto and Milwaukee. Given the flat, tight nature of the oval, road course specialists can often find themselves in the mix. Don’t be surprised if you say, “How did he get up front?” at least once during the race.