One of the closest title chases in IndyCar series history will go to a showdown at the final race after Ryan Briscoe threw away the chance to build a decisive advantage at the Indy Japan 300.
The pre-race championship front-runner inherited the lead at Twin Ring Motegi by running the longest second stint, before finally pitting on lap 106. A heavy Mike Conway crash as he refuelled left him perfectly placed to keep the lead, but he clipped the pit wall as he rushed to rejoin the track.
He said later: “With the accident leaving the pits, it was a huge opportunity to get the race lead. I just gassed it too much leaving my box and the car spun.”
The contact looked light, but was enough to damage his suspension. He managed a lap under caution with a pit lane cone wedged under his car, then came in again for lengthy repairs that put him 15 laps down on the leaders and killed his race hopes.
Instead the Ganassi pair of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, who had been the early leaders of the race, took advantage of his misfortune to regain the front and take first and second, ahead of Graham Rahal. Both also overtook the Penske driver in the championship standings.
Dixon, the reigning champion, now leads by five points from the 2007 champion Franchitti, with Briscoe three further back. The championship will be decided at Homestead-Miami Speedway on October 10th.
“It’s going to be a hell of a show at Homestead,” said Franchitti. His team-mate agreed: “It’s going to be a crazy race,” Dixon said. “Obviously, the three of us are going to be pushing to the maximum.”
Briscoe hasn’t given up hope of winning his first championship: “The good thing is that it’s only eight points to Scott. I feel real good going into Homestead. I think it’s a flip of a coin really who is the favourite going there between myself, Scott or Dario. I think all of us are fully capable of winning at that track.”
Dixon’s winning weekend began in qualifying, when he went out last of the 23 runners and snatched the bonus point awarded for winning pole position from KVM’s Mario Moraes, who had led for much of the session. Franchitti and Briscoe lined up on the second row, with Rahal and last year’s winner Danica Patrick behind them.
Dan Wheldon saw some of his form return by taking the eighth slot next to Oriol Servia, while Justin Wilson continued his improvement on ovals with ninth. Conway was 13th, while Helio Castroneves and Hideki Mutoh both crashed during their runs and were forced to start from the back.
The Ganassi cars raced away at the start, with Moraes staying clear of Briscoe and the charging Wheldon. The first round of stops ended Moraes’ challenge as he missed his marks and failed to take on a full load of fuel, being forced to pit a second time and dropping to 20th.
Franchitti took the lead at the first stops, with Wheldon passing Briscoe on track to gain third and start hassling his former team’s two cars. The second stops saw Briscoe’s disaster, Conway’s crash and another lead change between the Ganassi drivers that survived their final stops.
Third, fourth and fifth were decided at the final restart when Rahal got the better of team-mate Servia and Moraes, who had fought his way back to the front. Behind them Patrick beat team-mate Marco Andretti for sixth.
Wheldon dropped away during the final stops, ending the race eighth after his pit stop fell the wrong side of the caution caused by Ryan Hunter-Reay’s lap 160 crash, while Wilson was 12th and Conway classified 22nd.
Franchitti said he lost the lead because of the driving of Raphael Matos: “I managed to go longer than Scott in the first run. It was looking good as we came out of the pits after the second stop having pulled a pretty substantial gap. I was coming up to lap the No. 2 car – I went to go on the inside and he came down, so I moved up and he moved up. He kept moving up until I hit a bump and ended up in the marbles.
“I managed to gather it back up, by which point Scott had a massive run and passed me. It was unfortunate to lose the lead that way, but we’ve seen that all year from him, to be honest. After that, it’s just trying to pass Scott. We tried on the pits, on the restarts. We were so equal today, I needed traffic in front of us to slow Scott so I could get a run on him, and there wasn’t any.”
Dixon said the win felt tremendous: “It’s a track I’ve always wanted to win at – I kind of put Motegi just below the Indy 500. It’s a very difficult circuit. I remember coming here in the early years and competing for different engine manufacturers and how much emphasis is put on this race.”
Wheldon enjoyed the feeling of being at the head of the pack again: “It was really good to be back and running up front again. From the Panther Racing team standpoint I feel everybody did an excellent job – the engineering staff made a big change last night for the race and it was very positive.
“I could see that it made the car very nice to drive today and certainly when catching lapped traffic I was able to make a lot of time up. Unfortunately it was one of those things for us today; we got caught on the yellow flag. Everybody put a lot of effort into this weekend and unfortunately they weren’t rewarded – but we again showed that we can run with the best.”
Wilson had hoped for a top eight finish but found he lacked pace, losing a battle for 10th, 11th and 12th during the final stint with Castroneves and Tony Kanaan. He said: “Overall the race went well. The Z-Line Designs team did a great job in the pit-stops and the car was pretty well balanced. But I was struggling to keep up on the straights and I think we had a little too much downforce.
“I had some good battles and some close calls, especially in the last 25 laps. I thought I’d crashed on the exit of turn two near the end of the race, but fortunately it came back straight. All in all it’s not a bad result for our first time out on this track. We’ve learned a lot and it will be valuable experience for next year.”
Conway explained his crash: “I had a little run on Tony Kanaan into turn three but was never really alongside him. I was slipping my nose on him but backed down at the last minute as we were in the corner. I just went down onto the apron and kicked it around. It is a long way to come to not finish the race.”