Indy Japan 300
Indy Japan 500?
by Esteban Morales
April 21 , 2007
Indy came early this year, at least for Kosuke Matsuura who boldly proclaimed that the Indy Japan 300 was his Indianapolis 500 in terms of prestige and pride during the week leading up to the race. While Matsuura qualified in the first half of the grid the Japanese driver would go on to disappoint fans on the opening lap. In addition to Matsuura, Danica Patrick turned heads with a strong qualifying performance that placed her on the outside of the second row. As defending race winner Helio Castroneves led the eighteen-car field into the first turn and the Japanese fans peered down the front straight Matsuura backed his car into the turn 2 retaining wall. Panther Racing’s fortunes did not improve as teammate Vitor Meira went on to become the second retiree of the race due to handling issues.
At the lap 9 restart Castroneves had trouble breaking away from the pack for a few laps. Once he began building a considerable lead mayhem broke loose behind him with the most competitive opening stint this year. Dan Wheldon was able to hold onto second position after several attacks from Tony Kanaan while the rest of the top five scrambled for position until they were slowed by a yellow for debris on lap 32. Castroneves used the yellow to lead the field into the pits for the first stops of the day. The Brazilian continued to lead with Wheldon, Kanaan, Sam Hornish, and Marco Andretti in tow. Following the restart the leaders again jostled for position and Wheldon was able to take the lead while Castroneves began to fade.
Wheldon held onto his lead following the second set of stops with Kanaan in second and Dario Franchitti third at the halfway mark. A few laps later Kanaan responded to Wheldon, who began to struggle with his onboard radio, and closed the gap considerably. With Wheldon mired in traffic and hampered by a malfunctioning radio the leader became easy prey. Kanaan took the lead on lap 121 with teammate Franchitti still in third. A handful of laps later the leaders made their third pit stops under green and Wheldon managed to retake the lead with quick pit work. Moments later Wheldon dove to avoid Marco Andretti who smacked the SAFER barrier coming off of turn 4. With only six cars left on the lead lap the caution allowed Castroneves, Hornish, Franchitti, and Scott Dixon to come into the pits and top off their fuel in an attempt to make it to the end of the race without a final stop.
With the drop of the green Wheldon pulled away from the leaders and built up a comfortable lead over Kanaan. With a near two-second lead and only one pit stop left for a splash of ethanol, Wheldon looked set to capture his second win of the season. On lap 186 Wheldon eased into the pits and spent 3.8 seconds in his stall. Kanaan managed to stretch his fuel until lap 190 and only spent 3 seconds in the pits. When the stops cycled through Kanaan led by about .8 of a second over Wheldon, the difference in time spent in the pits. Wheldon managed to close the gap to Kanaan on the final lap but simply ran out of time as Kanaan crossed the finish line and grasped his first victory of the year. Though Wheldon went on to say that radio gremlins and miscues cost him the championship last year, he still sits atop the championship standings headed to the Kansas Lottery Indy 300.