Auto Club Speedway has always produced great open wheel races since its opening in 1997 and last year’s IndyCar return was the definition of a great race. With passing commonplace, a championship battle that went down to the last lap and a battle at the end of the race and oval specialist Ed Carpenter taking the win from Dario Franchitti, it was one to remember. This years edition way have put last years race to shame completely.
What we saw Saturday night was the definition of an incredible race or a cross between Death Race 2000 and The Road Warrior. The Death Race part attributes to the high attrition rate and problems that only a few in the field were able to escape. A scant nine cars finished the race, the lowest since Michigan in 2007. Whether it was heating issues caused by the unusual amount of marbles and sand causing cars to overheat or cars spinning out, it was purely a race for survival.
With the lead changing hands 29 times and a myriad of drivers swapped the lead in the early stages of the race. With the drivers switching from the back to the front multiple times, there was no sure bet on who was going to win the race.
Will Power may have exorcised his oval racing demons as well with his dominating win. He won the pole and was the only car with a 220 mph average in qualifying. He led 103 laps and despite the multiple leaders and having to change his helmet visor in the middle of the race after running out of tear-offs, was the class of the field and was the one of only a few cars that could pull away from the pack. It also seemed as if it was a different Will Power in victory lane and in the media center after the race. Power has usually been dry in interviews, but he was very ecstatic and jubilant.
“It’s the most satisfying win of my life,” he said. “That is the most satisfying thing I have ever done. And I wanted to do it so badly all year. I knew in the early ovals, I just was kind of conservative because I just wanted to finish every lap. And this time I’m going for it.”
Cars ran 2 and 3 wide aplenty, but it was not the side by side boredom like the old IRL days. It was cars going into a corner together and holding your breath to see who would lift first.
The scariest moment of the night was the 6 car incident that took out Justin Wilson, Tristan Vautier, James Jakes, Josef Newgarden, and Oriol Servia. Wilson has since been released from the hospital after suffering a fractured pelvis after being T-boned by Vautier, but there were no other injuries. Servia was lucky to not be injured as well, his car was pancaked into the wall very hard.
Jakes was also very lucky, as a half shaft from the accident in front of him came close to hitting him in the head, much like what happened to Felipe Massa at Hungary in 2009.
Simona de Silvestro was also involved in the accident, but was able to continue on and get her car repaired and survive the high attrition rate to score her best finish on an oval in 8th place, albeit 4 laps down.
A few underdogs made hay on Saturday night as well. Carlos Munoz made the most of his opportunity subbing for EJ Viso. Munoz was very aggressive, and even had Roger Penske concerned. able to drive lower on the track than anybody else and was able to make it stick. Although he lost it on lap 101, his awe inspiring drive proves that if he calms down a bit, this kid has a future in IndyCar racing.
Despite crashing out, Munoz took it all as just a learning experience.
I think I was doing a good job during the race although during practice I wasn’t feeling all that comfortable. But ever since we started tonight’s race, from the first lap, it was like my mind shifted – feeling really comfortable, the car was great, great first run and pitstops, great restart… in the end I just lost the car. It snapped, and I couldn’t do anything. It was my first crash on an oval, but there’s always going to be a first time. I feel really bad for the team. Obviously my plan was to finish the race, but we couldn’t do it. I’m happy with my performance up until the crash, and I’m just looking forward to next year.
The other surprise up front was Sebastien Bourdais. Bourdais has been great on the road and street circuits his whole career but does not have as much experience on superspeedways, but he flexed his muscle and was competitive in both qualifying and the race and led 35 laps and was in contention for the win despite issues with his pit crew until he crashed on lap 229.
Alex Taglaini made the most of his opportunity with Chip Ganassi Racing, fighting for the win as well as being the wingman for Scott Dixon. Tagliani darn near won the race at Fontana last season and this year it was the same story. He was running competitively inside the top 5 until he crashed out with 40 laps to go.
JR Hildebrand, in just his second start after being let go by Panther Racing after the Indianapolis 500 managed to get into the top 5 with 12 laps remaining after a pit violation earlier in the race, which would have been an upset win as well as a much needed boost for Hildebrand as well as Bryan Herta Autosport, but his motor expired 2 laps after the restart on lap 238.
The championship battle went down to the wire. Helio Castroneves had the least to lose in it all, but had to win the race to have any kind of legitimate shot at winning the title. He went for it and at the beginning of the race and despite pulling onto pit road while the pits were closed, he wasn’t completely buried yet and it wasn’t until he made contact with Charlie Kimball that did him in.
Dixon, however, after his brilliant drive at Houston was in control of his own destiny although his engine nearly overheated at the end of the race, but his Target Chip Ganassi Crew made a few precautionary pit stops and Dixon was able to make it home in 5th place, the last car on the lead lap.