Castroneves Finds A Sweet Home In Alabama

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 11 2010

Helio Castroneves won Sunday's IndyCar race in Alabama. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Birmingham, Ala. – Will Power’s pursuit of three straight victories ended when a three-stop strategy backfired at Barber Motorsports Park, where Penske Racing teammate Helio Castroneves saved enough fuel to beat the faster cars of Power and Marco Andretti.

“We wanted to do something different,” said Castroneves, who started third behind pole winner Power and didn’t take the lead for good from Andretti until nine laps remained. He survived a green-white-checkered finish that resulted from a stranded car shortly before the finish of the 215-mile IZOD IndyCar Series race.

Runner-up Scott Dixon gave chase during the final two laps of green, but could not find a way past. “The only thing you can do is try to push the guy hard in front of you to make him keep looking in his mirrors and overshoot a corner and make a mistake,” said Dixon of the course tightly coiled over steep terrain that was surrounded by fans on the hillsides.

Despite the exuberant Brazilian’s trademark climbing of a fence to celebrate and the two-lap dash at the finish familiar to NASCAR, the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was different. The enthusiastic crowd, estimated at 30,000, turned out on a balmy spring day to see an open-wheel road race thirty miles down the Interstate from NASCAR’s iconic Talladega Superspeedway, which had the drivers very enthusiastic about the series’ prospects after unification and the signing of a major corporate title sponsor.

“That shows we’re in the right direction,” said Castroneves, who showed off his infant daughter to the crowd in victory lane. “Alamaba is a place where people will enjoy this type of racing. I saw people in NASCAR shirts, so we can mix the fans, too.”

Like the other two podium finishers – Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dixon and Dario Franchitti – the race went to those who stayed out of the pits under the first yellow at the 12-lap mark and then nursed fuel mileage well enough to create a two-stop race. Andretti led 58 laps while trying to get in a two-stop race, but paid a penalty when he was forced to pit before the finish.

“I think maybe we could have stretched our initial stints a bit longer and gained on fuel one lap at a time,” said Andretti of his Andretti Autosport team, where his fifth-place finish was the best among teammates Tony Kanaan (eighth), Ryan Hunter-Reay (12th) and Danica Patrick (19th). “Helio just went longer than us each time and that was the difference at the end. He was able to go that much father and we fell short.”

Power, who set the race’s fastest lap by a leader on an open track on the fifth circuit, came down the pit road during the first yellow period on the 13th of 90 laps. His team was looking for a three-stop strategy – and the extra speed available by not nursing the accelerator. “When I came into the pits and looked in my mirror, I said, ‘Well, I think we made a mistake here, boys.'” Among the leaders, only front row starter Mike Conway followed Power into the pits and they spent the remainder of the race on the 2.38-mile circuit mired in traffic. Conway eventually slid to ninth after the choice of soft option tires had elevated him to second in qualifying.

“We were going to do the opposite, weren’t we?” said Franchitti of the first yellow perid. He moved up to fourth from his seventh place starting position by the re-start after passing Simona de Silverstro in the opening laps of green.

As predicted, there wasn’t much passing, especially when drivers are pursuing a fuel mileage strategy of trying to make the 90 laps on two stops.

“It’s not a fun race where you’ve got the team in your ear every lap telling you you’ve got to make this number,” said Dixon. This year, it’s all up to the driver, because there is no longer a choice of fuel map settings in the cockpit that can be adjusted.”

Andretti took the lead from Castroneves on lap 16 at the downhill tight lefthander at Turn 5 on the re-start after the first yellow. But after leading 13 laps he was forced to pit on lap 29, meaning he would have needed another yellow to make it to the finish with just one more stop.

Ironically, it was the traffic in a 25-car field on the narrow track that slowed the pace of all the leaders, setting up the mileage gambits. That scenario took the softer tire option out of the equation after most of the field started on the alternate red sidewalls and then reverted to the harder primary black sidewalls.

“If there were a few more places to pass, it would have been pretty good,” said Power, who made up 12 seconds after his final pit stop. But when the yellow fell for the stranded car of de Silverstro at Turn 5, Power, in fourth, and Franchitti, in third, were separated from the lead duo of Castroneves and Dixon by six cars. As with the two leaders, overtaking really wasn’t much of an option anyway.

“Some days it goes your way and some days it doesn’t,” said Power, who retains the series points lead.

It might have turned out differently for Dixon had he not been forced to give back two positions after a flying start. He went around the outside of Castroneves to take third in Turn 1, but IndyCar officials negated the move, saying Dixon had passed before taking the flag.

“The call at the start was total B.S.,” said Dixon, who wondered why Power had brought the field to the green in first gear at a speed considerably slower than the pace car. “I went to pass Helio on the left, which he was the car in third place ahead of me,” said Dixon. “He came over to the left, so I went back behind him and then over to the right and passed him on the outside of Turn 1.”

Part of the problem was the line of cars Dixon was in, led by Power, was faster at the start than the line led by Conway. “If they want us to just stay single file and have a start that way, that’s how they should do it if they don’t want anybody to make moves on the start,” said Dixon.

Castroneves wasn’t convinced Dixon had done anything wrong. “I’m not sure if he jumped or not,” said the winner. “All of a sudden he passed two cars (and got) ahead of us.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 11 2010
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