Dan Wheldon took a second consecutive Kansas Speedway IndyCar victory after his team-mate Scott Dixon dropped from first to seventh thanks to an unluckily-timed yellow flag seconds after he had pitted.
Dixon charged back to finish third, with Tony Kanaan stranded between the two Target Chip Ganassi cars in second and unable to make any headway through lapped traffic. Helio Castroneves took fourth.
Danica Patrick, winner at the previous race in Japan, qualified third but faded early due to understeer. She was fighting her way back into contention when a broken wheel-hub forced her retirement.
Just 34 points now separate the top five in the championship standings, with Castroneves leading Dixon by six. Wheldon is third, ahead of Kanaan and Patrick.
Further down the field, Justin Wilson drove strongly from a poor qualification position, finishing in 9th place, while Jay Howard finished 13th despite a drive-through penalty on lap 106 for hitting pit equipment. An unhappy Darren Manning retired after completing just 76 laps.
Wheldon’s victory makes him the first two-time IndyCar winner at the Kansas Speedway, and also marks his first victory since the same race last season. He now enters the run-in to the 92nd Indianapolis 500 as one of the pre-race favourites.
His victory came when Dixon, who led 145 of the race’s 200 laps, pitted just seconds before Buddy Rice crashed. This brought out the caution flags and allowed the other contenders to pit under yellow.
“It’s unfortunate for Scott about when the yellow fell,” said Wheldon. “I’m sure he’ll make up for that later in the year.
“The cars were very competitive the whole weekend. The crews performed flawlessly, and that’s the kind of weekend you want. It’s great to have that weekend leading into Indianapolis.”
He said this year’s championship looked like being very close, which meant drivers had to stay focused on the present and not look ahead to future challenges like the Indy 500: “The biggest thing that you notice about this year is, pick up the wins when you can, but you can’t have races out of the top five, because the points are just that close.
“So it’s about not necessarily the wins, but making sure if your car’s not competitive on any given day that you score as many points as possible. I’m sure that, especially in 2009 and beyond when the transition guys have had a little bit more time to develop their race cars and stuff like that, it’s going to be incredibly important just to be consistent. I’ll take a win any time I can get it, though.”
He said the win and the strong performance of both cars will give his team confidence in the run-in to the Indy 500 – but nothing that had happened so far guaranteed victory: “I think this will help going into the month of May, but I don’t think it means too much because it’s going to be tight there.”
And he pointed out that in 2005, the year he won the Indy 500, Newman / Haas had entered and run well: “They were very, very strong in the race with Bourdais and Junqueira, so I would certainly expect them and KV Racing and some others to show strong.”
Justin Wilson, who has inherited Sebastien Bourdais’ drive at N/H/L, will definitely be hoping so. For him, Kansas was a demonstration of his team’s strengths and weaknesses at this point in their transition to Indy racing.
He said the car had run well with other cars around it, but was slower than the more experienced teams when running on its own: “The McDonald’s car was great in traffic and when I was in a draft. It was great to be able to keep up and start to race people. I was enjoying myself and having fun.
“As soon as we lost the draft we struggled to keep up with the pace. That’s the part where these other teams have had years of experience on us so hopefully we will work that out over the next couple of weeks and close some of that gap.”
Wilson actually led the race briefly during pit stops, and felt that gave valuable information to the team: “We learned a little bit by leading the race and running in the front pack. The leaders can run a bit freer; they can draft right by you and you can pull in behind them just sit and hold their draft for a little while until they pull away. We learned a little bit by doing that.”
He didn’t speak about the Indy 500 – but he was pleased with the team’s forward momentum: “It feels great to race like this on an oval where we were flat out and it was fun to race. I think we are at a good point to build on.”
A glum Darren Manning had little to say after his early exit from the race: “The car was really loose and it didn’t respond to any of our changes. We’re taking it back to see if something is broken. It’s too dangerous to drive it.”