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The title kind of tells it all, but it doesn't diminish the crazy finish that transpired at the Twin Ring Motegi track in Japan. In what was a rather ho-hum race, a late gamble created one of the most improbable finishes in American open wheel racing history.
A day later than scheduled, the Indy Japan 300 finally got off the ground Saturday evening in the U.S. (Sunday in Japan time). It started with a bang; Unfortunately for Marco Andretti, that bang was his car crashing into the wall, knocking him out of commission on the first lap. The crash itself raised some concerns about tire temperatures, as air temp in Motegi a little below 60 degrees. Fortunately, his crash was the only one set off by cool tires.
A clear lead pack emerged after the restart, led by Helio Castroneves joined by Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, and Dan Wheldon. The second group of cars consisted of the future race winner, Ed Carpenter, and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
The caution came out a second time on lap 48 after Marty Roth got into the wall. Earlier pit stops by Ryan Briscoe, Townsend Bell, and Darren Manning allowed the trio to jump ahead. In particular, Briscoe caught up to the leaders, although he never sniffed at winning.
Vitor Meira caused a third caution on lap 91. Dixon was able to get out of the pits faster than Castroneves, and took the lead.
At this point, the pit stops were lining up a little ahead of the ideal pit schedule. At this point in time, Danica is shuffling between seventh and ninth place, racing mainly with Manning and Bell with Carpenter behind her. On the lap 96 restart, she gets ahead of both Manning and Bell and gets to about 2.5 seconds behind Dixon, but is unable to catch up to the lead pack and settles into sixth place.
On Lap 141 Roger Yasukawa had brake trouble in the frontstretch, bringing out the fourth caution of the race. Everyone pitted as planned, but on lap 148 later three cars came back into pit lane. They were the #3 of Helio Castroneves, the #7 of Danica Patrick, and the #20 of Ed Carpenter. The only logical explanation is that all three teams decided to try and make this stop their last, as no other cars could finish the race if it stayed green throughout. This is not an unusual move, particularly for the Penske and Andretti Green teams - Castroneves a little stranger than Patrick since it tends to be used by weaker team cars (as for Carpenter, his teammate was already out of the race).
On the restart, Dixon started to get a lead on the rest of the field. Among the three most recent pitters, Carpenter got ahead of Castroneves to take lead of their group. Meanwhile, Danica fell well back of the two, the result of a poor restart. She would fall back as far as eighth, although the guys she was running with all had to pit under green.
The key to the race became clear: Green Flag racing the rest of the way, or a caution to save Dixon's day?
Eventually as the laps began to wind down, cars began to pit. The first to go was Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had charged all the way to fourth after the restart. Surprisingly, it would be Carpenter in next. The team had been running lots of downforce on the car, but it cost the team the fuel mileage to get its first win. Soon the lead pack of Dixon, Kanaan, and Wheldon came in. On lap 197, this left Helio in front, followed by Danica. Once the stops were over, Dixon came in third, followed by Wheldon and Kanaan.
Just as it looked like Helio was going to cruise to victory, one lap after taking the lead Castroneves gave it up. He slowed down, and Danica charged past him. The question now became if either had enough Ethanol to finish, which for both was a yes. She only led the last three laps, but it was enough to seal the win.
A lot of credit for Danica Patrick's win goes to Kyle Moyer, her race strategist and the man responsible for the pit decision. However, a whole heap of credit goes to the driver as well. It may have been better that Danica did not keep up with Helio and Ed after the last restart. It likely made her capability to finish the race a lot easier than that of Helio. They played more conservatively with fuel during that lap 150-175 area, and instead when for it at the end of the race.
In some ways though, the win did not have the best time. By being the Japan race, it was not shown at a prime hour. Because of the postponement yesterday, it was on at a better time than originally schedule (winning around midnight ET vs. 2 am); however the race was on ESPN Classic. It will be replayed this morning on ESPN or ESPN2, so I wonder what the ratings will be for the replay knowing the result. Still, it is a positive that it happened before Indy, since it will help bring some buzz to that event. Obviously for Danica, the timing was wonderful, since it means she no longer has to deal with the whole "when are you going to win" question.
After Motegi, the series points currently see Helio Castroneves in first place by a sizeable (at least 3 races in) margin, followed by Scott Dixon and Danica Patrick. The week's points are still not complete, since they also have the Long Beach race to factor in, although the top 3 should remain the same unless Graham Rahal wins at Long Beach.
The win makes Danica the first female to win the an IndyCar event, but it is also the highest level at which a female driver has won in open wheel racing. Time to bask in glory will be short-lived however, as next Sunday the whole crew will be in Kansas.
- Template:Flagicon Danica Patrick
- Template:Flagicon Helio Castroneves
- Template:Flagicon Scott Dixon
- Template:Flagicon Dan Wheldon
- Template:Flagicon Tony Kanaan
- Template:Flagicon Ed Carpenter
- Template:Flagicon Ryan Hunter-Reay
- Template:Flagicon Darren Manning
- Template:Flagicon Ryan Briscoe
- Template:Flagicon Townsend Bell