Dixon Leads Points After Scary Race In Houston

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 6 2013

Scott Dixon didn't win in Houston on Sunday, but he emerged with the points lead. (INDYCAR/LAT USA file photo)

Season-long rivals Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves will decide the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship in two weeks after a tumultuous two days on the mean streets of Houston that ended in disaster for four-time champion Dario Franchitti.

Dixon, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, emerged from Sunday’s second 90-lap event of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston as the new series’ point-leader following his runnerup finish to Team Penske’s Will Power. Meanwhile, Team Penske’s Castroneves suffered through another day of mechanical issues en route to a season-worst 23rd-place finish on the bumpy, 1.634-mile/10-turn MD Anderson Cancer Centre Speedway at Reliant Park.

Dixon will take a 25-point lead (546-521) over Castroneves into the MAVTV 500 INDYCAR World Championships on Oct. 19 at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval in Fontana, Calif. A two-time series champion, Dixon must finish fifth or better to clinch _ even if Castroneves earns maximum points. A total of 54 points will be on the table in Southern California. Dixon and Castroneves are the only drivers eligible to win the 2013 championship.

Power overtook Dixon in Turn 3 on a Lap 40 restart and held on for his second victory of the season and 20th of his Indy car career as the yellow flag flew behind them on the final lap for heavy contact involving the cars of Franchitti, Takuma Sato and E.J. Viso.

Franchitti, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, was admitted awake and alert to Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center in Houston for a concussion, spinal fracture that will not require surgery and a fracture to the right ankle. He was to be kept overnight at a minimum. Sato and Viso were evaluated at the scene and released. In addition, one INDYCAR official and at least 13 spectators reportedly were injured by flying debris from the carnage in and around Turn 5.

“Yeah, I think the biggest thing is to make sure everybody is OK,” Dixon said during a somber post-race news conference. “Dario did go into the fence pretty hard. It looked like he was moving around when I went by (as the race ended under caution). Tried waving to him. He didn’t wave back. But I’m sure he was focused on some other things there. And then obviously the fans, looked like the fence took a pretty good hit there.”

Power was working on a lead of 0.9382-seconds over Dixon on the final lap when Franchitti collided with the out-of-shape rear end of Sato’s car in Turn 5. The contact sent Franchitti’s No. 10 T-Mobile Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda airborne and pin-wheeling into the catch-fence before falling back to the pavement driver’s side-up. Viso, driver of the No. 5 Team Venezuela PDVSA Citgo Dallara/Chevrolet, then collided with Sato’s stationary No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Dallara/Honda.

“On the last lap I caught the marbles and brushed the wall and lost momentum,” said Sato, pole-sitter for Race 1 in the car fielded by legendary team-owner A.J. Foyt Jr. of Houston. “A couple cars passed me as I was off-line and in Turn 5. I got very loose and Dario and I came together.”

Viso and Sato climbed from their cars with assistance from the Holmatro Safety Team. Medical personnel removed Franchitti from his car and onto a stretcher for an ambulance trip to the nearby hospital.

Several drivers said the debris field reminded them of the 2011 season-finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where a multiple-car wreck on the high-speed, 1.5-mile oval killed two-time/and then-reigning Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon.

“Yeah, I think it’s the smells and the visuals,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda. “For me, I think, and even talking to Will…you have the remnants of Vegas popping into your head, with you coming around the corner and you can’t drive through it because there’s a field of debris. There was nowhere near the amount of damage that we saw a few years back, but seeing the replay, I think, was the big shock.

“When I was driving around, I didn’t even look at the fence. You were just trying to pick away through the debris there. To see Dario’s car, you know, it definitely brings home what we do each weekend and sort of the difficulties that we can have out there. Yeah, it’s not a good sight to see, that’s for sure.”

Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Chevrolet, noted the DW12 chassis developed by Wheldon during the 2011 season has proven to be a huge improvement to driver safety.

“Man, we try to keep these cars on the ground,” said Power, who scored his previous win on the Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway road-course in August. “I think they’ve done a great job with the floor _where now we can hit and don’t interlock wheels _ and I think that’s prevented a lot of accidents in the last two seasons. But obviously, we need to have a good look at how he got up there.”

Third-place finisher James Hinchcliffe said he saw a shot of the fence before catching a full replay of the accident.

“I didn’t realize he (Franchitti) got up there, and that was a bit terrifying,” said Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 27 GoDaddy Pink Dallara/Chevrolet fielded by Andretti Autosport. “It’s the biggest kind of field of cars and debris I’ve seen since that race in 2011. It’s not really what you want to see. You know how fast that part of the track is. It’s bumpy. God, I mean, I’ve seen Will do it, I’ve done it. Everybody’s done it. We’ve gone completely sideways over the bumps there. I don’t want to say it was a matter of time before somebody got it wrong.

“Obviously, those are two guys racing side-by-side. Sometimes it’s hard not to have a single-car wreck through that corner, which should be a pretty straightforward, flat-out piece of racetrack. It definitely keeps you on your toes. To go that kind of speed and get launched up in the air, it’s not what you want to see.

“Just glad to hear it sounds like he’s (Franchitti) fine, and he’ll probably be a little bit sore, but he will fight on. He’s come back from worse, that’s for sure.”

Dixon started next to Castroneves in Row 1 for the standing start as the Race 2 grid was set by entrant points after a rainstorm washed-out the morning 30-minute qualifying session.

Castroneves entered the third doubleheader of the season with a 49-point advantage on Saturday. After qualifying a season-low 21st and finishing 18th in Race 1, combined with Dixon’s victory, Castroneves’ lead was sliced to eight points. A shifter issue early in Race 1 required repairs on pit lane that dropped Castroneves nine laps down. On Sunday, a broken gearbox housing left Castroneves’ No. 3 Shell Pennzoil Dallara/Chevy stranded in Turn 6 on Lap 12.

“Helio went wide on the 10th lap, and the car was a little heavier on fuel and launched it and came down, and we broke the gearbox away from the engine,” said team-owner Roger Penske. “It doesn’t make sense, does it? As far as I’m concerned, our guys have done a terrific job. The reliability and durability, that’s what it takes. Dixon’s got some bad luck, but when it’s time to go, they know how to make it happen.

“We’ll just have to see what happens at the end. Helio’s done a great job and it’s a disappointment, but the fact is it’s a little bittersweet with Will winning the race, and he did what he had to do. It’s just we didn’t execute with the No. 3 car.”

Team Penske returned Castroneves’ car to its temporary paddock area to replace the gearbox and rear suspension, and the Brazilian rejoined the race on Lap 47 _ 36 laps down to race-leader Power. Castroneves did earn one point for his 23rd-place finish, a marker that could prove critical in Southern California.

“We’ve had great luck for most of the season. Now, in a weekend, everybody’s dream has become an interesting scenario,” said Castroneves, who saw a streak of 12 consecutive top-10 finishes end in Race 1. “I will tell you one thing, this team is a testament to never giving up and I have faith in these guys that they are going to do everything they can to make it happen in Fontana.

“At the end of the day, it’s frustrating and disappointing. No one wanted this to happen, especially the Shell Pennzoil boys and Team Penske. It hurts. It really hurts.”

Dixon said his new-found status as point-leader and his cushion heading into Fontana will not change his approach.

“It’s still going to be a tough weekend at Fontana. Twenty-five points, it can go anybody’s way,” Dixon said. “You can never predict, basically, how the competition is going to be or the problems they may have.

“I feel bad for Helio with the weekend that he had. I think you see a championship _ you see most of the championship contenders have problems throughout the year, and he’s been pretty consistent throughout the year up until now. Most of the time, you see the top competitors get their fair share of problems.

“So it’s really going to come down to the wire. It’s going to be the last-lap, last-corner kind of situation that we’ll expect. At least I hope it ends that way. You don’t want somebody crashing-out on Lap 3 or even midway through the race.

“But he’s strong at the big oval, definitely, speed-wise. I think both engine manufacturers have got some updates for Fontana. So we’ll probably see a lot of grid penalties before the race. It’s going to be a fun race. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ve got to go with the mindset of trying to win the race. If you can do that and be on the top three, then job accomplished.”

Hinchcliffe, whose contract with team-owner Michael Andretti is up at season’s end, scored his first podium since Iowa Speedway in June. Justin Wilson followed-up on his fourth podium with a fourth-place finish Sunday in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Dallara/Honda fielded by Dale Coyne Racing.

Sebastien Bourdais, a four-time Champ Car World Series champion, advanced from the 13th starting position to finish fifth in the No. 7 Dragon Racing Dallara/Chevrolet. Bourdais earned his fourth top-five finish of the season. His last top-five result came in September on the Streets of Baltimore, where he placed third.

Oriol Servia gained the most positions, climbing from 21st to finish seventh in the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing Dallara/Chevy.

Results Sunday of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston – Race 2 IZOD IndyCar Series event on the 1.634-mile MD Anderson Cancer Center Speedway at Reliant Park, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis/engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (9) Will Power, Dallara/Chevy, 90, Running

2. (2) Scott Dixon, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

3. (8) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara/Chevy, 90, Running

4. (6) Justin Wilson, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

5. (13) Sebastien Bourdais, Dallara/Chevy, 90, Running

6. (3) Simon Pagenaud, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

7. (21) Oriol Servia, Dallara/Chevy, 90, Running

8. (10) Charlie Kimball, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

9. (16) Mike Conway, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

10. (17) Simona De Silvestro, Dallara/Chevy, 90, Running

11. (22) Tristan Vautier, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

12. (24) Sebastian Saavedra, Dallara/Chevy, 90, Running

13. (14) Josef Newgarden, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

14. (15) Takuma Sato, Dallara/Honda, 89, Contact

15. (7) Dario Franchitti, Dallara/Honda, 89, Contact

16. (12) E.J. Viso, Dallara/Chevy, 89, Contact

17. (20) James Jakes, Dallara/Honda, 89, Running

18. (19) Graham Rahal, Dallara/Honda, 88, Running

19. (23) Luca Filippi, Dallara/Honda, 88, Running

20. (4) Marco Andretti, Dallara/Chevy, 88, Running

21. (5) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara/Chevy, 87, Running

22. (18) Ed Carpenter, Dallara/Chevy, 61, Mechanical

23. (1) Helio Castroneves, Dallara/Chevy, 53, Running

24. (11) Tony Kanaan, Dallara/Chevy, 32, Contact

Race Statistics

Winners average speed: 78.444 mph

Time of Race: 01:52:28.9525

Margin of victory: Under Caution

Cautions: 9 for 26 laps

Lead changes: 2 among 3 drivers

Lap Leaders: Castroneves 1 – 10, Dixon 11 – 39, Power 40 – 90

Point Standings: Dixon 546, Castroneves 521, Pagenaud 491, Wilson 460, Andretti 457, Hunter-Reay 446, Power 444, Franchitti 418, Hinchcliffe 417, Kimball 406.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 6 2013
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