Detroit Indy Grand Prix
by Esteban Morales
August 31, 2008
Helio Castroneves has forced championship leader Scott Dixon into a final round duel. Despite a strong run that saw Castroneves finish second at the Detroit Indy Grand Prix, Roger Penske’s driver was speechless when he climbed out of his car. About twenty minutes before he removed his helmet, Castroneves was en route to winning his second race of the year, severely cutting into Dixon’s lead with only one points-paying round left in the series. On lap 71, however, Justin Wilson, driver of the Newman Haas Lanigan McDonald’s Racing Team entry, pushed Castroneves into a desperate maneuver. As Wilson closed on the leader, Castroneves blocked. Though it was unclear whether Castroneves would have had enough speed to keep Wilson at bay, the maneuver prompted IndyCar official Brian Barnhart to penalize Castroneves by forcing him to relinquish the position. Castroneves obliged and gave way on lap 73.
Later that afternoon Castroneves pointed to IndyCar’s officiating inconsistency. “Since I’ve been here since 2002, I always did that. And you got a warning, if you do it again now you’re penalized…you’ve got to be consistent. You’ve got to start fresh and not towards the end of the season, especially battling for a championship anyway.” According to Barnhart, IndyCar drivers are not guaranteed a warning on the racetrack before a penalty, and receive sufficient instruction during each drivers’ meeting.
Before the controversial call, Castroneves gained the lead in the early stages of the race. Dixon and the Ganassi crew, leading at the time, anticipated most of the field would pit during the second yellow of the event on lap 19. Castroneves and the majority of the field kept their Dallaras out of the pits and shuffled Dixon to a precarious eighteenth position. After Castroneves made his first stop on lap 32, it was clear that Dixon’s team made the wrong call. Castroneves kept his car in front while Dixon only managed to climb back to fifth. Two laps after Castroneves left the pits, Graham Rahal and Vitor Meira tried to split Danica Patrick headed into Turn 8. Meira and Patrick both damaged their cars in the process while Rahal continued unscathed. Just as the yellow flew rookie E.J. Viso who was driving a strong race in the top ten carried too much speed into Turn 12 and smacked the retaining wall.
Castroneves led Wilson, Oriol Servia, Tony Kanaan, and Dixon back to the line and quickly began to pull away from Wilson. Castroneves stretched his lead to about five seconds before the second round of pit stops. When the leaders cycled through their second set of stops Castroneves pushed his lead to over fifteen seconds. The gap to second disappeared on lap 66, however, after Dan Wheldon was unable to turn into Turn 7 and hit the tire barrier. Wheldon’s incident brewed the fight for the lead that led to Barnhart’s call. After blocking and letting Wilson through following the restart, Castroneves kept touch with the leader for a few laps before his car developed understeer. In the closing laps Castroneves decided to avoid a costly error and settled for second. Wilson took his first win since joining the IndyCar Series and earned Newman Haas Lanigan’s second victory of the year. Wilson called the win the most important of his career and dedicated the race to team co-owner Paul Newman who is rumored to have fallen ill earlier this summer.