Texas Race Thrills Helio, But Not Others

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 7 2009
Helio Castroneves got to hoist the six-gun and the trophy at Texas Saturday night. (RacinToday photo by Owen Richards)

Helio Castroneves got to hoist the six-gun and the trophy at Texas Saturday night. (RacinToday photo by Owen Richards)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – Helio Castroneves became a three-time IndyCar Series winner at Texas Motor Speedway on a Saturday night featuring a curious caution flag, a flawless pit stop and some clinical criticism about the quality of racing.

That latter issue – raised post-race by runner-up Ryan Briscoe and third-place Scott Dixon – has the potential to resurface at the four 1.5-mile layouts remaining on the 2009 schedule. For now, there’s no arguing that Castroneves is the new open-wheel boss on TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval, where he joined former Team Penske teammate Sam Hornish Jr. as a three-time event winner of the Bombardier Learjet 550k.

“I have no reason not to smile, man,” said Castroneves, two weeks removed from his third career victory in the Indianapolis 500 and a title contender despite missing the season-opener. “Actually, it’s a big reason. Hey, life is too short, I have to say. I’m doing what I love to do, so that’s why I’m smiling all the time.”

Briscoe, who led a race-high 160 of 228 laps, was working on a lead of 0.1753 seconds over Castroneves when native Texan A.J. Foyt IV slammed the SAFER Barrier in Turn 2 to bring out the night’s third caution on Lap 173. With the help of a six-second stop by his crew, Castroneves ambushed Briscoe by winning the race off of pit road. Briscoe and Dixon followed Castroneves out but never seriously challenged the Brazilian, who went on to a margin of victory of 0.3904 seconds.

“It feels fantastic,” said Castroneves, who led the race’s final 53 laps in his No. 3 Team Penske Dallara/Honda. “The No. 3 crew gave me that (win). The last pit stop, they put me ahead. Ryan was doing an incredible job. Those guys won the Pit Stop Competition at Indy. These guys are incredible again. Toward the end I said,’Pedal to the metal, let’s drive like I stole it.’ ”

Briscoe likely was thinking the same after what he politely described as a “frustrating result.“

“Probably one of the most frustrating I’ve experienced,” said Briscoe, who didn’t take much consolation in the fact he emerged as the championship leader by three points (199-196) over Dixon. “You know, we just got caught out on that last yellow there.”

Even more telling, however, was the night’s second caution on Lap 150 for what was listed on the Official Box Score as “Debris: in Turns 1 & 2.” Five laps earlier, Briscoe had stretched his lead over Marco Andretti to a whopping 10.3434 seconds. Briscoe was turning it into a rout in search of his second win of 2009, when the debris caution brought him back to the pack.

“Yeah, I didn’t see any debris,” said Briscoe, driver of the No. 6 Dallara/Honda. “That’s what killed us. We really built up a big lead. The car was awesome over the long runs. Then just in the pits, you know, we got beat by Helio. It wasn’t because we did a slow pit stop or anything. It’s a very tight pit box there. Pit-out has a bit of advantage. Doesn’t change the strategy. We’re still trying to win. Just didn’t have enough to get the lead at the end.” Castroneves had the luxury of pitting in the No. 1 slot at the end of pit road via owners’ points.

Castroneves backed-up his teammate on the curious debris call, which had the smell of a NASCAR competition yellow. “Yeah, I didn’t see anything,” said Castroneves, who earned his 16th IndyCar Series victory and the fifth at TMS for car-owner Roger Penske, tying him with John Barnes of Panther Racing.

“In those points, you got to trust the call,” Castroneves said. “You can never know what there is, if there is debris, if there is something that might affect and put somebody in dangerous. But I didn’t see anything. I just trust those guys (IndyCar officials). Sometimes there are situations like that. You’re in the lead, you don’t want to see any yellow. Been in that situation as well. But there is nothing we can do. We have to trust safety, because safety is always first.”

By Lap 200, Castroneves had stretched his lead over Briscoe to 0.2358 seconds. On lap 215, the advantage was up to 0.4516 seconds.

“After I came out of the pits behind him (on Lap 175), my first objective was to try to pass him on the restart,” said Briscoe, who led 154 of 225 laps at The Milwaukee Mile last Sunday en route to a second-place finish behind Dixon. “So I tried that for a couple of laps. But I just couldn’t get it done around the outside. It was so evenly matched. Trying to go around the outside just wasn’t working tonight.

“Scott was right there behind us. I didn’t want to lose any position to him. So I opted to tuck in behind Helio for a while and just try to stay single file, which is definitely quicker, then have another couple of go’s later on. That’s kind of how we played-out. We caught some lapped traffic. Scott got caught out a little bit. It gave me the opportunity to try to attack a little bit more. But just didn’t have enough speed to get around Helio at the end.”

Dixon, who won this event last year, said that while his No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car was “decent at best,” he couldn’t match Briscoe’s pace.

“I think when you got close to people you were matched up with in speed,” Dixon said, “there was no such thing as ‘racing,’ it was follow-the-leader, you could draft up. As Ryan mentioned, you couldn’t use the high line like you used to be able to around here. All the cars, I think, wherever they’re placed in the race, are so close on the speed that you just can’t do anything. Maybe they (IndyCar officials) need to look at opening up the rules a little bit more so we can have a bit of racing here again.”

The race produced seven lead changes among four drivers – Briscoe, Castroneves, pole-sitter Dario Franchitti and Ed Carpenter, who finished ninth on a night when only nine cars remained on the lead lap.

“I’m disappointed for the fans in particular because Texas is supposed to be exciting racing,” said Carpenter, driver of the No. 20 Menards/Vision Racing Dallara/Honda. “And unfortunately, the cars are too similar now and it weakened the product.”

Recall that Carpenter is driving for a team co-owned by his mother, Laura, and stepfather Tony George – founder of the Indy Racing League. Think these comments made for stimulating family conversation on Sunday morning?

“I’ve never seen this race turn into a one-groove track before,” said Carpenter, who quietly has three top-10 results in six races this season. “We want to put on a good show, and I’m afraid this was not it. You couldn’t pass and you couldn’t pass guys that were a lap down. It doesn’t take much of a block and suddenly you find yourself running behind lapped cars all night long. It turned into a fuel-strategy, track- position, no-passing race and no one wants that. This is a place you should be able to drive from the back to the front, and unfortunately, it is just not that way right now.”

Saturday’s event was the 20th IndyCar Series show run at TMS, dating to June 1997. It was also the 13th edition of what TMS president Eddie Gossage has dubbed “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race.” Hornish holds the track record for closest IndyCar finish – 0.0096 seconds over Castroneves in the Chevy 500k on Sept. 15, 2002. The closest finish in June saw Scott Sharp edge Robby McGehee by 0.0590 seconds in the Casino Magic 500k on June 11, 2000 – when the track was beginning to build its reputation for pack and side-by-side racing.

Dixon cited rules changes implemented since in an effort to slow the cars and prevent a NASCAR-style “big one” involving not only drivers but also fans as a factor.

“I think over the last years, they’ve (IndyCar officials) definitely tightened them (rules) up,” said Dixon, who posted his third podium finish in the last four races. “You used to be able to run a lot of different things, even down to mirrors. You have to specify your mirrors. Wheelbase is the same. Used to be a lot more options. I think that opened up where people were quite quick maybe for the first half of the stint, then others would be quicker towards the end. Now you’re just running flat-out the whole time. I think Honda does a fantastic job to keep all the engines extremely close. But the racing used to be a lot better around here.

“I don’t know if they need to maybe trim the cars out. The cars are going a lot slower now. I remember when I first came here (2003), we were running 223s. Now we’re down to 210s in the race. I think we need to open a few things up and see how it works. I know it’s a growing process with the series and the drivers. But I think at the moment it just doesn’t put on the show it should and has done before.”

Briscoe agreed with Carpenter that the current rules package has made the track a one-groove layout. “It’s not that the outside line wasn’t working,” Briscoe said. “It’s just that the bottom line worked so well. It’s so easy to run the bottom line. You really set the car up to run the bottom line. It’s a lot shorter distance. So when you run the high line, you end up just doing a longer distance and can’t gain any advantage.

“It’s become quite an engineering exercise. It’s about, first of all, making the car as easy to drive as possible, make it turn. Tonight I had a great car where I could really keep my foot down and go for it.”

Dixon said neither he nor Briscoe was suggesting that the cars are “easy” to drive. “Your grandma couldn’t get in and go out there,” Dixon said. “But it’s too even, I think.

“The problem now is you’re fighting track distances. Your speed equalizer is such that the person on the bottom probably travels a ton shorter in feet, then that transpires obviously to average speed. It used to be different. When you got a guy pinned on the bottom, maybe you had to lift sometimes. The cars were quicker. When you ran up-top, it would maybe run a bit freer, you could carry more speed around the whole track consistently, finish a pass.

“Traffic is still a bit of a tough part, obviously. You can run the bottom part of the track all day long. When you have to get up top, run across some of the different bumps, maybe it’s not as grippy up there. That definitely makes it exciting. I made a few mistakes running high and lost a bit of ground, especially towards the end when I kind of got moved up there. It makes it tough.”

Castroneves, who led Team Penske to its first 1-2 finish of the season, said he understood the frustration of Briscoe and Dixon under the IRL’s version of NASCAR’s “level playing field” philosophy.

“Well, obviously, they don’t think the race is good. They finished behind me,” said Castroneves, fourth in points and only 13 behind Briscoe (199-186) with 11 races remaining. “Don’t blame them. But one thing I have to say, I mean, these cars, since 2003, same car, same design, so everybody already learned the small details, the tricks. And once you’re running speed very close to each other, it’s not everybody’s fault. It’s just the way people develop, all the secrets that you have becoming revealed after many years.

“So it’s things like that that you can’t predict and you cannot stop. Especially with the IRL rules becoming more limited, it makes everybody even. So it’s becoming very important (things) like pit stop competition. Pit stop is basically becoming a key to win races, and all of those little details. So it’s not about the track, because you guys saw how many close race we had before. Just because it’s so many years with the same cars that it gives everybody the same equipment and same speed.”

File these arguments away for when the series visits its remaining 1.5s – Kentucky Speedway on July 1, and the three-race, season-closing stretch at Chicagoland Speedway on Aug. 29, Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on Sept. 19 and Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 10.

All that controversy did not prevent Andretti from registering a season-high fourth at the expense of Andretti Green Racing teammate Danica Patrick. The two raced in lockstep from Lap 210 to 220, when Marco used the high line to pass Danica for good.

“The toughest people out there passing me are my teammates, and I don’t get that,” said Andretti, driver of the No. 26 Team Venom Energy Dallara/Honda. “I think three out of four of us get what the camaraderie of Andretti Green Racing is.”

Patrick wound up sixth in her No. 7 Boost Mobile/Motorola car, one spot behind Franchitti in the No. 10 Energizer Dallara/Honda fielded by Ganassi Racing.

And Danica took the high side with Marco’s remark. “All weekend we had a strong car, and then during the race the steering became really heavy,” said Patrick, who saw a string of four consecutive top-five finishes snapped. “It just wasn’t the car we started with. I wish we could have had a top-five finish, but Marco passed me at the end fair-and-square.”

The other lead-lap finishers were Dan Wheldon in the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing entry in seventh; Tony Kanaan in the No. 11 Team 7-Eleven car in eighth and Carpenter in ninth. Robert Doornbos, who placed 11th, was the highest finishing rookie in the No. 06 Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Dallara/Honda. 

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 7 2009
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