Danica Patrick won IndyCar’s Japan 300, muting – but not completely silencing – the nagging voices asking when she’d finally win a race.
Heavy rain wiped out qualifying and delayed the race 24 hours, and when the action finally started a series of yellow flags threw everyone’s fuel strategies into confusion.
In the end, Andretti Green Racing’s calculations were best of all and Patrick was able to overtake Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves, running almost 10mph slower to conserve fuel, for the win.
The victory catapulted Patrick, already one of North American motorsport’s highest-profile figures, to a new level of fame and laid to rest – for most people, anyway – the question of whether she was good enough to ever stand on the top step of a podium.
Not everyone was convinced, with some quiet muttering going on about how it was only a win due to fuel strategy and not due to racing ability. And Castroneves rather ungraciously suggested she had only passed him because he hadn’t realised it was for position.
But others had no doubts. Writing on the IndyCar website, veteran reporter Jack Arute said: “No matter how you slice it. Danica EARNED her win.
“Yes, luck played a role. Just the way luck played a role in Rahal’s St Pete win and just the way luck played a role in Helio’s second Indy 500 win. (Remember the caution that negated Paul Tracy’s pass for the lead in that race’s late stage?) Danica deserves all the credit (and yes the attention) that she will get from this win.”
And rival team boss AJ Foyt was just as clear: “Castroneves was on the same fuel strategy as Patrick but he didn’t stick to the numbers as good as she did because when it came time to go, she drove right past him.
“Her crew made a great call and she did what she needed to win. They worked together and that’s what it takes to win races. It may not have been how she thought she would win her first race, but a win is a win and it feels good. I take my hat off to her.”
Patrick’s win unsurprisingly overshadowed the performances of all her rivals – which included some positive results for the British contingent.
Dan Wheldon, a regular top-two finisher at Motegi since 2003, ran strongly with Target Chip Ganassi Racing team-mate Scott Dixon but lost out as yellow flags and fuel gambles threw the outcome of the race into the air.
Wheldon ended up fourth, a place behind Dixon, and said afterwards: “It became a fuel mileage race, and we had a really good car. It was a good day for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, but not what we wanted.”
Darren Manning’s major contribution to IndyCar’s Japanese leg has tended to be the post-race party he organises for the drivers, but this year he had his best-ever race, finishing 8th.
His team boss Foyt, who missed the rescheduled race because the 24-hour delay forced him to fly home for business, said: “Darren ran in the top ten the entire race which was his best oval track showing in the No. 14 car since he began running it last year. For most of the race, he was running in the top six despite not having much luck with the timing of the yellow flags.”
He said a riskier fuel strategy might have put Manning nearer the front: “If I’d I been there, I think my guys might have stretched the fuel. But I know the last thing they wanted was to run Darren out of fuel and out of a top-ten finish. I might have gambled but they knew how bad I’d have been on them if they had gambled and lost, so I can’t blame them for their decisions. They did a good job.”
For Roth Racing, rookie Jay Howard again out-performed his boss, Marty Roth – the Brit was running at the end, having completed 192 of 200 laps, and was classified 13th, while Roth managed only 44 laps before making contact with a barrier on turn four and retiring in 17th place.