Helio Castroneves in cruise control
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Ed Carpenter chose his words carefully after finishing fourth Saturday night in the Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway.
"A pretty boring race, really," he said. "Everyone was just riding around managing their tires. Hopefully all the fans that came out at least enjoyed the show we put on. It was just tough."
Though he didn't express it as bluntly as he did a year ago, Carpenter was unhappy with the IZOD IndyCar Series' efforts to eliminate the pack racing that TMS used to be famous for by dramatically reducing the level of downforce generated by the Dallara DW12 chassis. The second element to controlling speeds and separating the cars was a specification of Firestone tire designed to go off over the course of a 50- to 60-lap stint, dropping the speed a driver could maintain by as much as 15 mph.
"It was a real struggle," Carpenter said. "It makes it real hard to drive, but that's what a lot of guys want.
"I think we'll leave it up to the fans and INDYCAR to decide whether they like it or not."
One driver certainly liked the new Texas formula a lot more than all of the rest: Helio Castroneves led 132 of 228 laps and built leads as large as half a lap before he eased off at the finish to defeat defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay by 4.692 seconds.
It was Castroneves' fourth and most dominant win at in 16 Texas Motor Speedway starts. But this one was considerably different than the others he scored in 2004, '06 and '09.
Prior to Saturday night, only four of the IndyCar Series' 24 Texas races had a margin of victory of more than one second. A third of those two dozen races ended in photo finishes decided by less than a tenth of a second.
For years, IndyCar drivers and officials were aware of the extreme danger pack racing in open-wheel cars presented. But it wasn't until October 2011, in the final race that the series used cars and an aerodynamic package that dated back to Indy Racing League sanction, that the tragedy many predicted finally happened. Coming up fast in a large, tighly clustered pack of cars, former IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon's car was launched into the catch fence at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, causing his death.
The DW12 chassis was designed with semi-enclosed rear wheels in an attempt to prevent the kind of airborne accident that killed Wheldon. But series officials went a step further, mandating an aerodynamic and tire package for tracks like Texas (a virtual clone of LVMS) designed to make the cars more challenging to drive and prevent them from running in such close quarters.
Of course, when a field is made up of spec cars -- when every car is essentially the same -- the racing is automatically going to be artificially close. That's what makes Castroneves' dominant performance Saturday night so impressive.
When every car is legislated to the same specification -- although IndyCar does now feature two engines, Honda and Chevrolet -- it's extremely rare to see a driver and team crush the field the way Helio and Team Penske did.
"I guess you're not lucky, you work hard and good things happen," team owner Roger Penske commented. "That's what happened tonight. The guys prepared a great car, and Helio drove the wheels off it."
In the final practice session prior to the race, Castroneves, more than any other driver, experimented with running a higher line on the track. That exploratory work paid off richly when the green flag dropped.
"It was nothing like in the previous years -- it was tough," Castroneves said after his 24th career IndyCar race win. "Only when I took the lead for the first time on the restarts was I able to go flat. You could see a lot of cars were going forward and a lot of cars were going backward. Because of that, the racing just changed and you had to be ahead of the game.
"Setup is important and is a big part of it, and I'm very fortunate to have great guys in my crew and to be able to do what I wanted," he added. "So that's one of the reasons we were able to be in victory circle today."
Castroneves confirmed that his focus on being able to run the higher line also contributed to the win.
"When you go high, the car changes a little bit on the setup," he remarked. "It changes the feeling, and when you go low, you have another one. That's where it was very difficult, even for me.
"But we set up the car so that when I do some adjustments, I was able to go high, and then I can move back when I have a low line. It was an interesting scenario. When you have a car like that, running high and low, man, it's a dream."
Drivers found that they turned their fastest laps of a stint immediately after changing tires. The lead pace was in the 210-212 mph range until the tires started dropping off, and when navigating traffic, they were sometimes unable to manage even 200 mph laps.
But Castroneves' car was so good that he often gapped the field by 0.3 or 0.4 seconds a lap in the middle stages of the race. The only way anybody was going to beat him was through a full-course caution and a restart, but that scenario never occurred in a race in which all three caution periods (for a total of 27 out of the 228 laps) occurred in the first half of the contest.
Hunter-Reay and his Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti appeared to have the best cars in the first 100 laps, but tire management issues forced them to adopt a four-pit stop strategy, while Castroneves completed the 342-mile distance on just three stops.
Andretti finished fifth after leading the first 53 laps. Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan elected to make a late, unscheduled stop for tires, and that allowed him to pass Andretti and Carpenter in the closing stages to take third place.
Even so, Kanaan believes that INDYCAR may need to revise the downforce level to improve the show.
"It was a difficult race at times," Kanaan said. "I decided to go off strategy because I was not comfortable with my car toward the end. Firestone has a great tire. But you can't ask the tires to do everything. Once we decide the aero package, then we need to go to Firestone and come back here and do a proper tire test and try to make a decision. This car has plenty of downforce, but you need to remember that we do not want a pack race.
"Tonight is what we don't want to have -- going overboard a little bit."
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Hunter-Reay added: "When you don't have the downforce or the tires, the car does not want to get into the corner at all and it doesn't want to come up out of the banking. Once it does, the rear just snaps loose, and I had some major corrections. I'm sure everybody did tonight."
In a sense, INDYCAR got what it wanted Saturday night in what was perceived by many as a boring race by previous Texas standards. The purists may have enjoyed watching one driver and team execute to perfection and dominate the event, but casual fans accustomed to NASCAR restrictor-plate pack races likely had a hard time appreciating the magnitude of Castroneves' and Team Penske's accomplishment.
As the only 1.5-mile, high-banked speedway that the IndyCar Series runs, Texas is an anomaly. The DW12 has produced much closer racing, with lots of drafting and passing, on longer tracks such as Indianapolis and Fontana, and that will likely be the case when the series makes its modern era debut at Pocono Raceway in July. The quality of racing has also not been an issue at short tracks like Milwaukee and Iowa, the next two venues on the IndyCar schedule.
Based on Saturday night's event, INDYCAR probably does need to make some minor tweaks to the tire and/or aero package used at Texas to spice up the show there.
But as mentioned above, Texas is a unique, one-off kind of track for the IndyCar Series. Six of the eight races run in 2013 have produced exciting racing and close finishes with seven different winners.
Seven drivers are essentially within one race win's worth of points from series leader Castroneves in the standings for what promises to be another epic IndyCar championship battle.
Improvements can be made at Texas, but in a big-picture context, INDYCAR shouldn't let one less-than-spectacular race detract from what has been a superb season so far.
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