The Verizon IndyCar Series took to Texas Motor Speedway for its first oval race of the season outside the Brickyard, and one of the series’ true masters in the noble art of oval racing flashed his guns – and turned a shootout into a stroll in the park.
The twilight start at the Firestone 600 saw four Penske cars in the first five spots on the grid, a balance disrupted only by the emerging – and surprising – force of Carlos Muñoz’s Honda-powered Andretti Autosport entry. It wasn’t long after the first green, though, that the first shots were fired, defying Penske’s armada in a series of events that ended up sinking it completely – or at least half of it.
Simon Pagenaud, the team’s newest addition, jumped to an early lead, followed by the ever-competitive Tony Kanaan, showing from the earliest moment the Ganassi strength that would dominate the changing scenery in the Lone Star State, as the sun set on the horizon giving place to a count of stars that outnumber majestically the amount represented on the state flag.
Helio Castroneves, a four-time winner in Fort Worth, followed the duo, trying to emerge victorious for the first time this year. His teammates Juan Pablo Montoya, behind the wheel of the No. 2 car, and Will Power, the defending series champion, completed the top-five.
As miles piled up – at the rate of 1.5 per lap – and laps stacked, though, it was quickly becoming clear that the four Penske cars were not ready to contend as night fell in.
Every 30 laps or so, Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal opened new pit windows, trying to change an outline that was drawn in the same speed the leaders were lapping. Always a fast-paced one: the only caution of the evening came as we were already nearing Lap 100, for debris, as the 200 mph wheel-to-wheel racing did not make any victims among the 23 drivers who started the race.
The single yellow flag of the evening, however, was crucial for how the Texan night played out.
Tony Kanaan, the leader of the pack as caution was waved, had a slower stop than Montoya and Castroneves, thus costing him two spots. Pagenaud, experiencing a loss of performance when having to share the track with slower drivers, tried to draw an ace from his sleeve, making adjustments to his No. 22 car - but to no avail; the Frenchman had a troubled pitstop and rejoined the track after everyone else who was also on lead lap. Will Power, who was also falling back due to poor pace, but still holding on well into the top-10, was never to be seen again once the race restarted.
It was Scott Dixon’s mastery of important skills – such as fuel saving – that rose to prominence in what would be a one-sided, two-side Ganassi affair for the remaining 148 laps. Even though Montoya and Helio led the pack, they failed to widen the gap from Dixon and Kanaan who were fiercely battling for the lead at every round of stops, despite being always followed closely by the Penske.
Tony was the first to sink the teeth in his prey, swiping past Dixon, Helio, and Montoya in the same turn, as the Colombian slowed down to help his teammate move past him. The Indy 500 winner, however, lost performance, grip, and clean air, stumbling all the way down to seventh. Under a green session that lasted until the checkers, though, he could not work the same Brickyard magic again, rising only as far as 4th.
Chip Ganassi’s duo were back on the top two and they were due to remain there until the very last lap. As the No. 9 and 10 cars extended their lead on the No. 2 and 3 Penskes, Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball were locked in a tight battle for a top-five finish; this was one of the most exciting battles of the evening.
At the second-to-last round of pit stops, nearing Lap 175, Dixon powered to the lead, and beyond that, he established a healthy gap between himself and Ganassi stablemate Kanaan. By the time everyone had hit pit road, the New Zealander led by over five seconds, with only four cars remaining on the lead lap.
With the Kanaan threat fended off and the hallucinating pace of an eventful showdown – the only retirements, Newgarden, Carpenter, Vautier and Hawksworth, all due to mechanical issues – only a caution or an accident could spare the Dallas night from a dominant Dixon victory.
Much for his skipper’s pleasure, neither a yellow flag was waved, nor the triple-champion from Oceania saw the wall before checkered. Scott Dixon conquered the Alamo for the second time – the other being seven years ago, the season he claimed his second title, proving once and for all that the iconic Target Chip Ganassi team is far from a deadbeat this season.
Most likely to the contrary. The way the season is shaping, it looks like we are for one good, old fashioned Chip vs. Roger run for the 2015 title.
After the Firestone 600, the ninth of 16 rounds, Montoya remains atop of the standings, with 348 points. Will Power is second, 32 points back. Dixon is the only other driver to have surpassed the 300-point mark this season, with 305. These drivers, the top three in the points, and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series, now head to the streets of Toronto for a return to temporary city/street circuit racing.
Pete Liguori is a writer for the VAVEL USA Racing section. Follow him on Twitter at @PedroLiguori.