BATTLE ROYALE AT THE MAVTV 500
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Published on Mon, Oct 21, 2013
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story by Brian Kennedy
Pictures by Gabriela Moya
While Power was doing his magic to gain and keep the lead, the two championship contenders were dicing away for the title. Castroneves, particularly, knowing that he essentially had to win to gain it unless Dixon had trouble early, was insane in his pursuit of the front pack. On lap 16, he went up high outside of Bourdais going into turn one. Dixon, meanwhile, was floating halfway back in the pack with a couple of other cars, just running around.
By lap 20 or so, he was alone, taking a super-high line next to the wall. On lap 21, Castroneves was up fighting side by side with Hunter-Reay for second. When the American tried to block him, he moved higher still. But then when Hunter-Reay got by Castroneves, he stretched his advantage.
On lap 35, these two drivers pitted early and together, and then all of the first four cars were in, with Power staying out. Shortly after all of the service was done, Castroneves was second, and Dixon was comfortably behind in ninth. He was shortly challenged by James Jakes, at about the one-fifth mark of the race (lap 48), for 12th place. When the lead pack caught lapped traffic, Castroneves allowed Hunter-Reay to deal with them, and he hung back in third. By the one-quarter mark in the race, it was the Brazilian second with Power right behind him and Dixon still 12th.
During service in a caution period around lap 70, Dixon gained six spots, but he dropped to tenth soon after the restart. Then he moved up to eighth. Meanwhile at the front, Castroneves was throwing all caution out. He, Bourdais, and Munoz passed into turn one three-wide, and exited turn two the same way. It was only as they got to the third turn that Munoz would drop low. Doing this allowed Castroneves to assume the race lead, though shortly after that, caution would come as Munoz got caught in dirty air and lost traction.
Marco Andretti was at this stage also among the leaders, which is not exactly the focus here, but this is: Andretti was nearly caught up in the Munoz wreck, but it could as easily have been Castroneves who was washed out by Munoz’s accident, since he had been fighting him for a long while. At that stage, it would have been championship over. Instead, he had an excellent stop and led the race when the green (actually pink, for beast cancer awareness) flag flew again. Meanwhile, as had become the habit, Dixon sat back in 12th spot.
After a long yellow for Justin Wilson’s wreck, Castroneves was bullied by Bourdais and Tagliani, who passed him to put him third. Marco Andretti then got him, slipping him to fourth. As lap 130 came, he and Dixon found themselves together for the first time in a long while. They went side by side, with Power between them. As they headed into turn one, they nearly touched. A lap later, each had thought better of it, and they were nicely in line, with Tagliani leading ahead of them. Castroneves then decided to push the issue, diving under Dixon for fifth place. He didn’t get the spot, and dropped back to seventh, with Dixon fifth. This was the first time that he would have gained any advantage in points had the race ended abruptly, though not enough to take the title.
Meanwhile, someone lit a fire under Dixon, who charged up to take third spot. Power was in front. Attrition had dwindled the field down to 17 cars. Dixon then moved to second, and the top seven cars were strung out in a line. With this spot, he was 38 points to the good in the season’s championship. There was another caution, and he held second, with Castroneves moving to fourth.
At the green flag, Dixon took the lead with Power second. Castroneves was seventh, but charging. He regained fourth spot, then was challenged by Tagliani, who pinched up outside into turn one. Castroneves dove low into turn one under Charlie Kimball, who had been in third. He didn’t get the spot, but was once more under pressure from Tagliani when the Quebecker approached him into turn one, then hit the wall in turn two. Castroneves then ran through pit lane, a mistaken call by his crew.
He explained after the race that there was “a little bit of confusion there. I asked again to pit and they ended up calling me this lap. I noticed that there was only one team, and, oop, gotta go back again, so it was fine. That was just a dip on the radar, not an issue at all for the race.”
The cars restarted on lap 212, with Castroneves 10th, then ninth on the next lap, and with Dixon way ahead in third. He went to the outside once more, up beside the wall. Down the back stretch he was the same, and at the stripe, he and Kimball were side by side. Dixon was behind them, having been three-wide with the others and decided it was crazy. Castroneves was motivated nearly lap 219, however, and he whipped out high from behind Kimball going through turns one and two. The next lap, they were side by side. It was 220, with thirty circuits to go. That same lap, two cars—Bourdais and Dixon—split Castroneves going into turn two, and Helio was fourth going into lap 221 with James Hinchcliffe right behind him. Dixon, on lap 222, was sixth. Then tragedy struck.
At least if you call a broken wing a tragedy. For Castroneves, it was. His front endplate had gotten partially knocked off in the racing, and he had to pit on lap 226. Castroneves said in post-race comments that he had no problem with Kimball over the incident. “What can you say? He was going for it. One movement a little too close and it damaged my front wing.” He also cited a near-wreck with Tagliani at one point as a moment when he thought, “Ah, this is going to hurt!”
Dixon was sixth at this point, but he had no more challenge after Castroneves went a lap down. He cruised to the finish a safe distance from any competition and took his third title in a decade, the others coming in 2003 and 2008.
The Brazilian summed up his day by saying, “I had a great time. It was awesome; I went for it. I’ve been driving my heart out out there. I was pushing to the limit.” He further said, “It was a shame that we ended up having contact with the 83 and broke our front wing. I knew my only chance was to be aggressive, and that’s what we did.” He was hoping all the way down to fifteen laps to go that something would happen for him. Not just hoping, but believing.
He also said “I can’t take for granted the season that we had,” and that losing by two points or one point would have probably been harder to swallow. “But you can’t take the credit from the Ganassi guys, or from Scott.”
Dixon did not have a perfect car. In fact, in the last number of laps, he was having overheating problems, which would have caused an alarm to go off inside the car had he not had it uninstalled. The reason—when the buzzer overrides all other controls. This is what happened to him at California last year, making it impossible, for instance, to work the weight jacker. He thus had the system disabled for this year. Good thing, because it would have been jangling over the last thirty or so laps. He cruised home fifth, one spot and a lap ahead of Castroneves.
After the race, Dixon commented on what this championship means to him. “The first one I was young, and I didn’t really understand what I’d won. I was new with the team. I was 22 or 23. From what I understand now, it’s different.”
In 2008, he had a “dream year. I got married, won the Indy 500 and won the championship. It’s pretty hard to beat that.”
On the other hand, “this year was quite different. Mid-season, I didn’t think we had a chance to win the championship. In fact, I had a conversation with Helio in mid-season saying, ‘You may need to watch out,’ because he’d pissed me off a little bit. I said, ‘I’m not in the championship, so don’t do that again, or I could maybe hinder your championship.’ It’s funny how it’s turned out to be us fighting it out in the last couple of races.”
“I feel for Helio. . . . But I want to thank him for running a great race tonight and pushing as hard as he could.”
He said that he will take his responsibility as a champion seriously. “I do understand that for this sport, especially, that’s striving and pushing to come back, to be out there is important. . . . I do feel that some drivers may be better at this, but . . . it’s very important to get this sport the recognition that it deserves.”
Read Brian Kennedy’s BATTLE ROYALE AT THE MAVTV 500: What you didn’t see on TV