XM Satellite Radio Indy 300
A Crushing Hat Trick
March 24 , 2007
Heading into this season’s opening Ethanol Indy 300 a few announcements raised some eyebrows in the Indy Racing League paddock. Following last year’s methanol and ethanol cocktail, the IRL will run all rounds on pure ethanol this year. Familiar teams and faces such as Beck Motorsports, Sarah Fisher, and Alex Barron have returned to the scene while sportscar newcomer Milka Duno looks forward to making her IRL debut later this season. After last year’s red and white domination headed by Penske Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing, fans eagerly hoped for a more competitive field, especially with several teams and drivers shuffling the roster. Although Dan Wheldon qualified on pole with Sam Hornish Jr. on the outside, qualifying hinted at a more competitive field with Andretti Green Racing’s Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, and Marco Andretti lining up in between the second Penske and Ganassi entries.
Despite fans’ wishes, Wheldon is poised not to lose a second championship due to the minor errors that plagued his 2006 season. Though the AGR and Penske cars kept up with Wheldon during qualifying, the British driver drove away from the field with the drop of the green. On lap 8 Wheldon was prematurely slowed with a yellow due to Barron’s slowing Beck Motorsports entry. Wheldon elected to keep his car on the track while Kanaan, Andretti, and others dove into the pits. Once the track went back to green Wheldon teased the competition allowing Hornish to keep up with him with Dixon, Franchitti, and Helio Castroneves rounding out the top 5. Just before the first set of scheduled stops Wheldon began to show his muscle extending his lead over Hornish to about 2.5 seconds on lap 45. Hornish pitted with a brisk 8.5 second pit stop but Wheldon stretched out his advantage with the help of his crew with a 7.7 second stop. Wheldon maintained a 2.5 second lead over Hornish until a lap 66 yellow for moisture on the track.
Wheldon headed the field into pit lane under yellow and led Hornish, Dixon, Castroneves, Franchitti, and the rest back onto the track. Wheldon had a tougher time opening a gap over Hornish with the drop of the green. His lead oscillated between .1 to .3 of a second until Jeff Simmons’ loose handling car sparked a heavy collision involving Kosuke Matsuura and A.J. Foyt IV. During the yellow Wheldon and Hornish shocked the crowd with two disastrous stops; Hornish stalled his car while Wheldon’s car fell off the jack and hiccupped when Wheldon stood on the gas. Scott Dixon led Ed Carpenter, Vitor Meira and the rest to the lap 109 restart with Wheldon mired at the back of the pack. Though the pit error was characteristic of Wheldon’s 2006 season, his determination was not. Just a few laps later the Briton was up to fifth and easily moved around Meira and Wheldon for the lead by lap 120.
By then Wheldon cruised for the rest of the race with Dixon in second and Hornish third while the others battled for leftovers. Hornish struggled to keep up with the Ganassi cars and fell behind 6 seconds by lap 150 while Dixon tucked in behind his teammate. Two laps later Hornish made up some time during his final pit stop but was still unable to substantially close the gap to Wheldon who gave up a little over a second during his stop. During the stops Danica Patrick slid into the inside pit barrier and characterized AGR’s frustration and struggles; Kanaan and Franchitti were far back down the order while Andretti called it a day after serious handling woes. Despite the slower stop, Wheldon continued to dominate on the track and left only five cars on the lead lap. Wheldon cruised to his third straight victory on the Homestead-Miami oval 6 seconds ahead of his teammate. Wheldon vowed that this was “step one towards the Indianapolis 500…nothing else matters to me.” Despite the crushing victory it was clear that pit errors, which plagued his effort last season, are still present. Though TCGR had a vastly superior setup at Miami, there is no reason why Penske, AGR, and a revamped Panther Racing effort should not be able to challenge in a week on the streets of St. Petersburg.