Records, Dull Racing Are Hot Topics At RIR

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 28 2009
Scott Dixon and his record-tying IndyCar trophy. (Indy Racing League photo by Shawn Payne)

Scott Dixon and his record-tying IndyCar trophy. (Indy Racing League photo by Shawn Payne)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Scott Dixon’s next IndyCar Series victory will put him into an Indy Racing League of his own.

Dixon’s victory in the SunTrust Indy Challenge at Richmond International Raceway Saturday night was the 19th of his IndyCar career, tying the New Zealander with Sam Hornish Jr. for most in series history. In a bit of one-upmanship, Dixon matched Sudden Sam’s record in his 104th race, one fewer than Hornish, who made 116 starts and notched three championships between 2000 and 2006.

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” said Dixon, who finished 0.3109-seconds in front of Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti. “I definitely would like one more so we can have that record outright. But achievements like that are something that you can look back and really treasure. I know there are many years, hopefully, in my career that I can try and build on that. I have to stick at it for a long time to try and keep that going.

“But it’s pretty cool to be in that position. I know Sam really well. He’s a fantastic driver and definitely had this series captured many years ago when he was first in here, and to leave on the note he did, with (an Indianapolis) 500 (win) and a championship, was pretty special as well.”

Dixon led 161 of 300 laps around the 0.75-mile layout en route to his third victory of the season and second on the Virginia oval. Dixon previously won at RIR in 2003. 

Graham Rahal finished third – the second generation star’s career-best oval result – for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. Meanwhile, Hideki Mutoh led the first laps of his IndyCar  career while finishing fourth – the Japanese native’s second top-five in as many events. Mutoh, of Andretti Green Racing, finished third at Iowa Speedway last Sunday. AGR teammate Danica Patrick placed fifth at RIR, last car on the lead lap. 

But as was the case after the season’s first night race on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway quadoval earlier this month, post-race talk was dominated by the quality-of-racing issue. Saturday night’s race produced only three leaders, with Dixon and Franchitti pacing all but the 74 laps led by Mutoh. Dixon took the lead from Franchitti for good on Lap 140 and paced the final 161 circuits to the checkered flag. 

“It was a bit of a procession, unfortunately,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Dallara/Honda. “It was very tough to pass because of the track. I think it’s just the last couple of years we’ve really slipped into a car that is not enabling a whole lot of passing. So tonight was a premium of trying to save some fuel. I saved a little bit more than Dario, and he got caught out with that (third) yellow and I was able to continue on and jump him in the pits. 

“So that was the pass for the lead. There was a few other cars I think throughout the night that were popping up. There was AGR cars, I think they did a fantastic job to jump up from where they were. But it was totally down to strategy. Even once you got to lapped traffic it was very tough to pass. It was kind of one line out there. If you tried to go around the outside or even move up or make dives, it was very slippery off the track.” 

For the record, last year’s race at RIR produced similar stats – only three lead changes among three drivers, with winner Tony Kanaan of AGR on-point from Lap 206 to 300. Kanaan led a total of 166 laps last summer. 

Franchitti, winner of the previous oval race at Iowa Speedway,  earned a bonus point for capturing the PEAK Performance Pole Award and took the championship points lead (279-278) over Dixon. 

Beyond that, Franchitti was in an apologetic mood for what he frankly termed “an awful, awful race.” 

“It was obviously disappointing not to have won,” said Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Dallara/Honda. “But in the track position race, Scott and I, we were very equal in performance tonight. He was out front. Unfortunately, my mistake was trying to use too much fuel to pass, I think it was Mutoh. 

“I apologized to the fans because they came out to see good racing and traditionally the IndyCar Series put on fantastic races, especially at Richmond. I didn’t feel tonight was that. It was a track-position race. And to a degree it became a fuel-mileage race. 

“As I say, I think Scott and I had very, very equal cars, but nobody could pass. The people at the very front, whether it was Scott or myself, we were hanging on all night, pushing it as hard as possible. I know I was pushing as hard as I could to pass him and look at how much oversteer he had coming out of the corners. He was pushing. 

“The guys who were trying to lap were pushing. Everybody’s pushing. It’s not that we’re just cruising around, but we cannot get close enough to make those passes. And we need to look at that and fix it.” 

The schedule’s next three races are on either natural terrain or street courses. Brian Barnhart, the IRL’s president of competition and racing operations, reportedly is mulling a series of rules changes to the current aerodynamic package before the next oval race on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway on Aug. 1. Basically, IRL officials are looking at rear wing angles and add-on aero aids to curb the turbulence that is making it all-but-impossible for drivers to race side-by-side and/or pass. 

“We have run the zero (downforce) package before with good results,” Franchitti said. “Whether it’s just the track is getting older or what, I don’t know, or it’s a new compound tire, I don’t know what the deal is. Because we’ve got the same ingredients we had two years ago and three years ago when we put on great shows. So we can do it. We just got to figure out what’s missing and I don’t know the answer to that. 

“At the start of the run, we’d run 16.8 (seconds), then dropped to 17.0, as the things equalized. And you catch traffic and you’ll be running 18.0s and 18.2 on a normal lap…18.2 on a bad lap. It’s not that the cars tonight were close in performance. I just don’t know.” 

Rahal said finishing third to the Target Twins was like a victory for NHLR, which in its second full season in the series has begun to figure out the nuances of the IRL’s ovals. 

“To be standing on the podium finally on an oval, it feels pretty good,” said Rahal, who finished 18th at RIR last summer. 

“Last year we were in the series but we pretty much just ran around on the ovals,” said Rahal, driver of the No. 02 McDonald’s Dallara/Honda. “But this is our first year being somewhat competitive. The further to the top you get, the tougher it gets. As Dario said, tonight just didn’t seem – I passed maybe two guys the entire race. And certainly guys behind me at times were quicker and couldn’t get by. 

“The way to fix it, that’s obviously not for me to figure out. I think that Kentucky last year for us was a close race. So you could go there and it would be a better race anyway, I think. 

“What is it that fixes it? I honestly can’t really tell you because I haven’t been in it long enough to know what the cars felt like two years ago here. I know what it felt like last year, and it was a handful for me anyway. But from my perspective, it seems like everybody’s gotten so close, it’s so competitive now, that that makes it tough. But then, again, as Dario says, there are guys certainly struggling out there a lot more tonight than I was. And it was tough to get by.” 

Pole-sitter Franchitti led twice for a total of 65 laps, including the first 30, and admitted none was easy. 

“I guess the frustrating thing tonight is as far as driving the car, my car was one of the better ones out there and it was a handful,” Franchitti said. “I don’t think anybody had an easy night. And unfortunately the fans can’t see that. It doesn’t translate into the show tonight. Everybody was out there hanging on. So it’s just a shame that that doesn’t kind of – people outside the car can’t really tell that that’s going on in there.” 

Dixon voiced similar concerns about entertainment value after unsuccessfully trying to chase down race-winner Helio Castroneves of Team Penske during the Bombardier Learjet 550k at TMS on June 6. Dixon finished third in Fort Worth. 

“Fortunately for us, I’m just the driver,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Dallara/Honda. “I get put in it and told to go fast. I’ll do that no matter what. And I’ll complain as much as the person next to me about what we need to fix. It’s fine for a situation, say, for me tonight, when I’m out front, it’s pretty cool because you’re not going to get too much pressure. 

“The only guy that kind of got close is my teammate and, to be honest, I don’t think there was any way he was going to pass me even if I went a half second or second slower. It’s not one thing. It’s not going to be one thing. There are many things we’ve changed over the last two years that have maybe stopped the amount of passing that we have had. But we’ve got to keep in mind what we’re here to do. 

“And we’re here to race. We’re here to put on a show. Without our fans, we don’t exist. I definitely want to keep on racing for many years. I want to put on a show because I want the fans to come and watch and love what we do.”

Turn 2 proved to be the demise of Team Penske. Ryan Briscoe, the points leader entering the eighth of 17 races, suffered his first DNF since July 2008 at Nashville Superspeedway after a single-car incident only 27 laps into the event. Briscoe, who had finished second in three consecutive events, began the night with a three-point lead (241-238) over Franchitti. Briscoe placed 19th and fell to third in points, 26 behind Franchitti.

Penske’s Castroneves crashed on Lap 248 and finished 17th. The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner now sits fourth with 225 points heading to Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International for the Camping World Grand Prix at The Glen on July 4-5.   

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 28 2009
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