Ryan Briscoe broke the hearts of fans of the underdog everywhere by pipping Ed Carpenter to the narrowest of victories in the Meijer Indy 300 at the Kentucky Speedway.
With qualifying cancelled because of water seeping from the surface of the track, drivers started the race based on where their cars stood in the entrants’ points championship. That put title contender Briscoe on row two, and Carpenter way back in 14th.
But the Vision Racing driver came within a few feet of scoring one of the biggest upsets in IndyCar history, battling for the lead for much of the final quarter of the race, heading Briscoe during the last lap and, in the end, losing by just 0.0162 seconds.
The thrilling result was vindication of the measures put in place by the IRL to deal with a lack of overtaking earlier in the season. The SunTrust Indy Challenge in Richmond was so poor that the drivers apologised to fans afterwards and the circuit chose not to have the IRL back next year.
A package of changes to the car, including aerodynamic alterations and a limited form of ‘push to pass’ power boost, were brought in for the Kentucky race – but the wash-out of the build-up meant there was little idea whether they would work until the contest began.
The closeness of the battle between Briscoe and Carpenter – the pair were just 0.0018 seconds apart on lap 193 of the 200 – left observers more positive about the state of the series than at any time this year.
“Ed would get a little bit in front of me in the middle of turns three and four but with my momentum on the outside I was able to edge him down the back straight,” said Briscoe. “I would time my ‘push to pass’ button so I would get the extra power through turns three and four. It was getting tougher and tougher, and I was just jumping in my seat trying to get in front of him across the finish line. It just worked out perfectly.”
Carpenter has struggled for much of this season, performing poorly on the road courses and not rising to the occasion on the ovals that are his preferred territory. The son-in-law of Vision Racing boss and IRL founder Tony George, he has grown used to suggestions that he has a drive because of his connections rather than his skill.
But in Kentucky, as he has from time to time on ovals, he raced at the front on merit and came agonisingly close to a first win in 94 starts. He said: “Once we cycled through the lead on that last stop I was ready for rain [to come] or whatever. Just trying to run as hard as I could and stay in front.
“I’ve got to thank my mom and Tony for giving me the opportunity, and [sponsors] Menards, Johns Manville, Lilly and Cardio Check, William Rast. It’s been a tough year. I was hoping this was going to be a break-out race, try to get our team turned around for the rest of the season and we did that.”
Third place was taken by Tony Kanaan, who commemorated the pitlane fire that engulfed him during the previous race at Edmonton with a logo on his car labelling him “The Torch”. He said: “It was a good one, it was a helluva race. The people came here to see a photo finish and we did it. The old IRL is back.”
IRL operations chief Brian Barnhart said: “Ed had a great car tonight, the 20 car, he had a breakout race. It was as good a race as I’ve ever seen Ed drive, the team did a great job.
“Overall there was a lot of excitement to it, even the pit drama, the pressure on the teams in performing on pit road because in the last segment we had the top nine cars separated by about a second and a half. One little hiccup on pit road would have cost you a lot.
“But Ed was able to maintain his lead and the last 10 laps were quite a shootout.”
Briscoe’s victory shuffles him to the front of the tight three-way battle for the championship, ahead of the two Target Chip Ganassi cars of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. Franchitti, who came sixth, said: “It wasn’t a good day for the target cars.
“Scott was very strong to start with. He ended up behind us. Both of us, I wasn’t quick all day. We worked on the car. The guys did a good job on the adjustments, but we were just never fast. Got pushed up in the grid a couple of times, which cost us a couple of spots. Not a good day for the Target team.”
Dan Wheldon had high hopes as the series returned to oval racing from a stint on road and street courses where his Panther team is weaker, but he suffered problems with his car in the first stint, losing places. Adjustments made during each of the team’s first two pit stops improved the car significantly, but the lack of caution periods reduced his opportunity to gain places.
He said: “It was a difficult night for the National Guard Panther Racing team and certainly not what we were expecting coming into Kentucky this weekend. But we have to keep fighting.
“We have all the right components here at Panther and it’s a matter of taking advantage of what we have and getting everything right during the race weekend. There is a lot of the season left and the work starts next weekend in Mid-Ohio.”
A wheel bearing failure ended Justin Wilson’s race early, the yellow smoke coming from his car bringing out the only caution flag of the race. He said: “I felt good out there today. We were running a decent race and, even though there wasn’t a lot of track time over the weekend, we learned a bit more about running on ovals. I’m disappointed to have finished in the way we did, but now I’m looking forward to the next race.”
Mike Conway, who went some way towards repairing his shaky reputation with some fast times during the road course races, took a step backwards at Kentucky by ramming Mario Moraes in the pitlane. He lost five laps while the team repaired his car, then emerged to finish the race without further incident.
He said: “The start was okay and the car felt good. I had a good use of the ‘push to pass’ and it seemed to work well and get you beside someone good.
“As we came in for our first pit stop I started to stay low and Hunter-Reay was coming out so was Moraes and I had nowhere to go. It took the wing off. That was a shame because we were running fairly well.
“After that we were just running laps and learning. It’s a long day when things go wrong early, but the team worked really hard. I just have to thank the crew and Dad’s Root Beer for being so supportive.”