MAVTV 500 2014
Round by Round
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Published on Sun, Aug 31, 2014
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story by Brian Kennedy
Pictures by Gabriela Moya
Things changed slightly Friday night after IndyCar qualifying at Fontana had been finalized. In practice, Mikhail Aleshin had an accident, a severe one, which pitched him into the fence. Those who have seen the accident or who perhaps saw Dario Franchitti’s similar wreck last year in Houston know that once the catch fence grabs hold of an IndyCar body, the car spins and flies, as Aleshin’s did, finally landing down the track from where the wreck began between turns 3 and 4.
The Russian driver went to the hospital and stayed there, watching the race on Saturday, if he did so at all, from those safe confines. That meant that the title hopes of Will Power, more or less assured if he placed in the top third and certainly so if his main rival, Helio Castroneves, did anything but win (see prior story at LACar.com), got slightly easier.
Aleshin would not be replaced in his car, which would have run in backup form anyway given that he tore his primary machine apart in the accident. That meant that only 21 cars would be starting the race. Power, having had a horrid qualifying session, would still be second to the tail, twentieth, but even had he puked out in lap one, he would have left his rival, Helio Castroneves, having to finish third or better to win the season’s title.
And so Power took off tailing the field, and hoped. For his part, Helio was out front, certain to gain a bonus point on the very first lap, and thus close the title hunt ever so little. But he didn’t. Instead, Juan Pablo Montoya charged to the front. However, Castroneves did lead the second lap. Power was just cruising at the back of the pack.
A bit of backstory on Castroneves: of all the cars in the garage, his seemed to be run the most in drydock. It was running when LACar walked past it at 6pm Friday night. The engine was burbling away again mid-afternoon Saturday, when nobody’s else’s engine was turned on. And he also went through tech—for a second time, one presumes—late on Saturday, around 5:20pm. His guys, apparently, were doing all they could to try to erase the 50-point disadvantage he came in with.
By lap 10, all of the 21 starters were in single file. Power was inside of Ryan Briscoe for 16th place on lap 12. By about lap 15, the top four cars were gapped from the next group of cars, and Power was 15th. By lap 26, he was 14th with Sebastian Bourdais pushing him. He maintained that spot also while Briscoe tried to pass. Meanwhile, rookie Carlos Huertas parked a poorly handling car, ensuring Power of a finish no lower than 20th.
After a series of pitstops, the top 12 cars got strung out around lap 50, but Power was defying commonsense in 11th place, going three wide with Graham Rahal and a lapped car. On lap 52, he was side-by-side with Rahal still. Up front, James Hinchcliffe began to figure amongst the leaders. By 56, Power had slid back to 14th place and allowed Rahal, Briscoe, and Carlos Munoz to battle it out for 11th while watching from a safe distance.
On lap 58, Rahal slipped back and was once again contesting with Power, while the leaders were 22.6 seconds ahead of them. Power briefly engaged Munoz, going inside of him entering the wide first turn, but ten laps later, that whole group, including Power, Saavedra, and Bourdais, were on pit road.
Lap 75 being the 150-mile marker, the points looked like this: Power, in 10th, would have had 666, while Castroneves, running 2nd, would have been at 657, including two bonus, one each for the pole and for leading a single lap. The hope for the other two, for leading the most race laps, was fading as he watched other drivers on point. Montoya was up front at 75, 7.2 seconds ahead of Castroneves. Twenty laps later, on 95, the cars were strung out with 15 still on the lead lap, #3 (Castroneves) in 3rd and #12 (Power) in 10th.
Between laps 100 and 109, the lead-lap cars pitted, with the notable result that Hunter-Reay worked his way to the lead by lap 120. It was the 13th lead change, coming after he dove low into turn 1.
Power, meanwhile, had started to recognize the need to put on some pressure, and in two laps, he grabbed two spots, first going around Charlie Kimball and then Newgarden to land in 7th. The cars all pitted around lap 140, and when that shook out, Castroneves was leading. Power was 7th. This would have meant, had the race been at the end, a points swing of 678-677, a one-point championship win for Power.
Still, the competition on the track was not intense. The top seven cars were strung out in a line, though Helio was making fast laps. Before the pits, Hunter-Reay had run a 34-second circuit. Castroneves was putting in 33.6s after the stops. Lap 160 saw Power in 6th.
Then caution came out when Hunter-Reay slid into the grass coming out of turn four. He had a safety car there quickly, but he got going again without pitting and tried to catch the field under yellow. Of course everyone took the chance for service, with Kanaan coming out in the lead. He had been lurking among the frontrunners in the prior stint.
As the next laps unfolded, Power got aggressive. He went inside of Castroneves for third place with Target teammates Kanaan and Dixon ahead. Then on lap 189, he dove low into turn four and came out with the lead. This gave him one bonus point. On lap 190, the lineup was Power-Kanaan-Dixon-Castroneves-Montoya. The laps in the 190s saw Power continue to fight and hold the lead, with Dixon overtaking Kanaan at one point and then some lapped cars getting mixed up with the group. By 200, Kanaan and Dixon were in front with Power 3rd and Castroneves 5th. Behind Power, Ed Carpenter, known for his oval prowess, and the winner at Auto Club Speedway in 2013, was pressing Power for third.
It was a foreshadow of how things would be 50 laps later.
One more pit stop with about 30 to go solidified Kanaan-Dixon-Carpenter as the podium, and Power’s aggressive driving was starting to make him look like a champion, but then Castroneves made the crucial mistake that sealed that. Between turns 3 and 4 as he entered the pits, he dipped his tires below the white line, and got penalized with a drive-through penalty to drop him a lap.
Power was now assured of his title if he brought the car home, and so he backed off with Castroneves down a lap in 14th place. By lap 230, Power was back in 6th. By 235, he was 8th, and he had Munoz closing on him. Power gave him the spot going into turn 1 on lap 245. Meanwhile out front, Kanaan was ahead of Dixon by 3.5 seconds.
The eventual victory was Kanaan’s first of the year and 17th career in IndyCar. Dixon finished the race and the season strong, this being his third podium in the last four races. Montoya, who looked early on like he might win the race, came in fourth behind Carpenter.
The margin of victory for the season’s title ended up being 62 points, more than Power was leading by when he came into the race weekend. Dixon was 3rd for the season, Montoya 4th. Dark-horse contender coming into the evening Simon Pagenaud would end the season in 5th place. There was a chance that he could have won the title, if he had finished first and Power 20th with Castroneves no higher than 3rd.
Castroneves said after, “It just wasn’t meant to be tonight . . . . I got better on the in and out laps, and the tire changes were great. At one point they put us in the lead, and I was just cruising. Then the yellow came in, and I did not want to do that, because we dropped to third with the pit stop and the lead. After that pit stop, my car changed a little bit.”
He also commented on the penalty: “Unfortunately, and I believe people are confused. I didn’t go fast in the pits. I actually went over the line between turn three and four. That’s the penalty . . . . If I hadn’t gone there, I would have spun out. Unfortunately, my wheels touched that line and the car pulls away, and I got two wheels over. That put me one lap down, and after that it was just bring it home.” He was happy for his teammate’s win of the championship, he said, and he looped back to the race, indicating that it would have been tough to defeat the Ganassi duo of Kanaan and Dixon on the track.
“We were doing great in this last race, and it’s a shame that I made a mistake,” he finished.
Winner Kanaan said, “We struggled in the first of the year, but we showed mid-season how strong we were.” He was happy to give a win to Dario Franchitti, retired after last year’s serious accident in Houston and now Kanaan’s mentor. “He helped me adapt to the team really quick, and I actually dedicated this victory to him. He went through a tough time, and he’s a guy that’s extremely healthy and extremely capable to still drive a race car, and he was forced to retire, so I was grateful for what he’s done for me this year, coaching me and being on my timing stand. I told him, ‘I know you’re not driving, but I hope you know you won a race as well.’”
On the race, Kanaan said, “It’s very difficult, this track, between the seams and the dust. It’s a 500-mile race, and I wasn’t really trying too hard in the beginning of the race. We were running between 5th and 7th, just hanging in there. Then the guys had a great stop, put me in the lead, and I actually didn’t expect it.” He said that his plan had been to pick up the pace with about 50 laps to go.
Power came to the podium with Tim Cindric and Roger Penske, his owner. They were celebrating the team’s first championship since 2006, a point that quickly came up. Cindric said, “It’s kind of been an odd few years, because it’s not like we haven’t been winning races or winning poles, but we just couldn’t for whatever reason be sitting here. For quite a while, we were the ones to beat in terms of championship, and then it went away for a while. If there’s a guy who deserves it, it’s Will Power.”
Power has three times been runner-up (2010-12), including crashing out of the 500-mile race at Fontana to blow his chances to win the title in 2012. He said that things had changed for him at the end of 2013. “I think the fact that I wasn’t in the championship chase showed me how aggressive I could be, and I actually got back to the way I used to race when I was younger, which was just attack, nothing conservative. The three championships we lost, I was being conservative, like on restarts, or in certain situations, and now, I just feel like I race naturally. Yeah, it was a change, because I was put in a position not to protect a points lead.” He won that race to end last season.
“The race tonight, starting in the back there, we just slowly picked people off. We’d get people on the out lap and getting good air, but there was a point in the race where I thought I really had to go for it, from about 6th or 7th. I passed Munoz and thought that it was really time to get myself well in the top five. On the restart, I got to lead a lap, and I thought not to go backwards.”
“To win the championship is 15 years of hard work for me. It started back in 2000, and to get the opportunity to drive for Penske, then to finish runner-up three times, this is such an emotional win for me.” His distant gaze stood in contrast to the claim to feel emotion. But he went on, “That’s the team for you. Man, awesome team here.”
Penske also chipped in. “From the team perspective, it was a big win, and for Will, he’s got the monkey off his back now. From my standpoint, Tim and the team have done a lot to grow this business. The series is so much better, the competition and the reliability. I don’t think there was one car that dropped out. The racing is clean, and it’s very, very competitive,”
Power summed up the run to the title: “Two weeks of not much sleep and stress. Keeping my wife up at night, but in that race tonight, I just kept my mind on the job, focused, and this is the result.” For more stories on the MAVTV 500 by Brian Kennedy and images by Gabriela Moya: NEARLY TIME TO RACE – MAVTV 500 INDYCAR World Championships MAVTV 500 2014 – Power Pounds for Points MAVTV 500 2014 – Friday in Fontana MAVTV 500 2014 – The Gunslingers