Izod IndyCar Series: Helio Castroneves Earns a Strategic Victory

After sloshing through rain covered events in Sao Paulo, Brazil and St. Petersburg, Florida in the first two races of Izod Indy Car Series, the drivers had full sunshine for the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, held at Barber Motorsports Park.  The circuit, the third non-oval race of the year, is set in a theatre bowl of grassy mounds, providing a picturesque and challenging course.

Will Power, winner of the season’s first two races, held the pole position, with Mike Conway of Dreyer and Reinbold Racing surprisingly sitting in the second position.  Media darling Danica Patrick, who’s not known for her skill on road courses, started 19th out of 25 cars.

Video of IndyCar practice at Barber Motorsports Park

All the talk before the race centered on how difficult it was to pass on this track, a point which was made immediately obvious when the 25 cars took the green flag.  Sensing an opportunity to gain vital track position, drivers gunned it at the line, creating a very frenzied start.  Jumping the gun a little too early, or so IRL officials ruled, was Scott Dixon.  Dixon made a nice move to get around both Marco Andretti and Helio Castroneves as the green flag dropped, but was reprimanded by officials and forced to let Andretti and Castroneves move in front of him, a ruling Dixon vehemently questioned after the race.

Power cruised through the first 13 laps with a comfortable lead, but when Takuma Sato’s green and yellow sponsored Lotus machine shut down on the straight-away, Power and his crew were forced to make a key decision.  Pit under caution and save track position, hoping for a few yellows later in the race, or hold off and attempt to make it on only two fuel stops.  Power and his Penske crew chose the former, and seeing this, many key contenders decided on the latter strategy.  It would prove to be the turning point in the race.

Castroneves, Power’s teammate, briefly took over the lead when action returned to green flag racing, but Andretti, trying to break a 54-race victory drought, quickly passed him on a skillful inside maneuver.  They stayed that way over the next 58 laps, Andretti in front with Castroneves hanging casually behind. When Castroneves became the last contending car to pit on Lap 61 (out of 90), it became clear he had enough fuel to make it to the end, but that Andretti, who had pitted several turns earlier, would need a caution to make it happen.  In fact, when Milka Duno missed a turn and slid into the grass, Andretti’s crew chief, Kyle Moyer, could be seen screaming, “crash, crash, crash,” knowing it was the best chance his driver had of remaining in the lead.  It was not to be though.

Andretti was forced to pit with seven laps remaining, and in doing so, surrendered the lead back over to Castroneves.  There was a brief moment of excitement when rookie racing chick Simona de Silvestro, who ran as high as 5th, spun out and stalled in the middle of the track with five laps remaining, setting up a restart for the final two laps.  Dixon, who had worked himself into the second spot after the early race penalty, made a jump on Castroneves, but the Brazilian was too strong, holding off Dixon and the rest of the field to grab his 17th win of his IndyCar career.  Dixon finished second, with Dario Franchitti, Andretti and Power rounding out the top five.  Patrick, who made contact with Alex Lloyd in the middle of the race, finished 19th

Next up on the Izod IndyCar schedule is the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, followed by the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 in Kansas City, Kansas the week after.  Then it’s time for the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500.  If this past weekend’s racing action was indication, fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May will be treated to one of the most competitive fields in recent 500 memory.

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