The IndyCar Series returned to oval racing with the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at the Kansas Speedway – and its traditional powerhouse teams took the opportunity to reassert themselves.
Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti took a 1-2 finish ahead of Andretti’s Tony Kanaan and Penske’s Helio Castroneves, as the teams and drivers that had challenged during the four-race season opening on road and street courses generally fell back.
Ryan Hunter-Reay gained 17 places from his starting position to record his best-ever oval finish in fifth, but series leader Will Power was mired down in 12th place while Justin Wilson was three laps adrift in 18th.
Power retains the championship lead by 26 points from Dixon, 190-164, with Castroneves close behind on 162 and Hunter-Reay and Franchitti chasing with 159 and 152 respectively.
Polesitter Ryan Briscoe saw his chances vanish after a wheel came off his car during a caution period. He had already lost the lead to Dixon and the incident dropped him as low as 11th. He battled back to eventually finish sixth.
He said: “We had a bit of a tough day out there today. Considering the day we had, I feel pretty good that we were able to finish on the lead lap and bring home a top-six finish.”
Briscoe had led the first 31 of the 200 laps until Dixon overtook on the track and Franchitti got him in the first round of pit stops. From there, Dixon was unchallenged for the victory – even when a late-race caution period closed up the field, his lead was protected by a buffer of lapped cars between him and Franchitti.
He said: “Definitely at the end I was worried because we’ve been caught out so many times with the pit sequence. I thought, ‘There’s going to be a yellow come out here shortly and it’s going to catch us out.’ Sure enough, just as we pitted, it came out – but it didn’t affect us. If we’d gone one lap longer, the last 10 or 15 laps could have been a different story. Luckily enough it worked out for us.”
Franchitti found the lapped traffic frustrating: “It appears the race one or two or three laps down is more important than the lead lap race. They’re running side-by-side, driving up into the grey, giving absolutely no room to have the race in the front of the pack. That was very frustrating. I think Helio, Tony and myself were trying to make the best of it and trying to jump each other.”
For all the drivers, Kansas is seen as a warm-up race that sets the tone for the Indianapolis 500 later in May. Unsurprisingly, Dixon was left optimistic: “It was huge. Winning at Kansas going into the month of May is a big deal. Team Target has had a slow start to the season, but this is what we need and jump back into points table. It’s certainly good to get that momentum going to Indy.”
But Power was also in a mood to take the positives: “I had a busy day out there in the Verizon car. The first stop I went a touch long in the pit box which cost us some time. The car felt pretty good all day. The restarts were interesting and I definitely have a better idea of who I can work with out there. Overall, I’m glad we ran as well as we did and I’m feeling good going into Indy.”
Jay Howard made his season debut for Sarah Fisher Racing, as the popular owner-driver’s squad fielded two cars for the first time. But the race ended in disaster on lap 179 when Howard hit the wall hard, badly damaging his car.
Web journalist Bill Zahren reported that the incident happened as Howard attempted to pass Fisher, and “rage was in the air” in the team trailer afterwards – although the team statments afterwards gave no hint of it. Howard thanked his sponsor and said: “The month of May is a long month, so we’re going to take what we learned here on to Indy, and go from there.” Fisher said the return to ovals “was a long first day back”.
Both Dreyer & Reinbold drivers – Wilson and Mike Conway – suffered badly from understeer and did well to complete the race.
Conway finished two laps down in 14th and said: “It was a long day. At the beginning I got a good start and worked my way up to P6 and everything felt comfortable. I felt some understeer coming in the car and by lap five there was way too much of it and as the run went on it got worse and worse. I fell back really fast. From that point on we had to deal with that all day.”
Wilson added: “I was fighting under-steer throughout the entire race. We made changes each stop and the car was getting better, but we struggled to find the grip. I’m setting my sights on Indy and I’m looking forward to doing some testing and dialing the car in.”
For Dale Coyne Racing, Alex Lloyd experienced the opposite problem – he started the race with understeer but the team fixed it during the pitstops and he finished 19th, a place behind Wilson.
Lloyd said: “Each stop we made an adjustment or two and by the end we had a really good car. This is our first run together as a team on an oval this year and, although it was a short weekend, I think we learned a lot that will help us prepare for Indy.”
Coyne himself added: “We treated this weekend as a test, really.”
At Panther, Dan Wheldon recovered 10 places from his starting position to finish 15th as he fought back from having his third-placed qualifying time wiped for dipping below the white line as he set it.
The focus for him now is Indianapolis, where he finished as runner-up last year. He said: “Obviously the National Guard Panther team continues to work extremely hard and we had a reasonable result today and kept all four wheels on the car. We’ll use some of the information we learned here today and look for a strong run at Indianapolis.
“I’m really excited to get the month of May started, I think we’re in a really good position to perform extremely well again this year. I don’t think today’s performance completely shows our true capabilities, but nonetheless we can learn from these experiences and hopefully that will make us even stronger for Indy.”