Controversy swirls at Sonoma
If Helio Castroneves goes on to win the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship, he should make a point of thanking INDYCAR race director Beaux Barfield in his acceptance speech.
He should probably also acknowledge the small but critical role played by Travis Law, a Team Penske tire changer working for Castroneves' teammate, Will Power.
Though they certainly didn't conspire to do so, Barfield and Law directly influenced the result of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Some questionable sportsmanship by Law during a critical round of pit stops and a subsequent penalty that Barfield levied against Scott Dixon combined to send Power to the victory circle for the first time in nearly 16 months.
Leading at three-quarters distance, Dixon looked in a strong position to score his fourth race win of the year and considerably narrow the 31-point advantage that IndyCar Series championship leader Castroneves carried into Sonoma.
On the 64th of 85 laps, Dixon led Power into the pits and pulled into his stall directly behind the Team Penske car. Ganassi Racing completed Dixon's service first and the New Zealander began to accelerate away.
Meanwhile, Law completed the change of Power's right rear tire and slowly began carrying the used wheel back to the pit wall in his left hand. Replays showed he barely acknowledged Dixon's car, looking in the other direction when the car struck the tire with its left sidepod. The tire bowled over Law and another Penske crewman and sent a 40-pound wheel gun flying into another Penske team member. There were no significant injuries.
Even though it appeared that Law might have deliberately tried to obstruct or delay Dixon's pit exit, the contact left Barfield with little choice other than to call Dixon in for a drive-through penalty.
Dixon went from being eight points behind Castroneves at the time of the fateful pit stop to 43 points back after the drive-through penalty dropped him to 21st place. He ended the day 39 points in arrears after he finished 15th to Castroneves' seventh.
Although livid, Dixon remained calm after the race as he watched a replay of the pit lane incident with NBC Sports Network's Marty Snider.
"He [Law] is walking straight into our car," Dixon said. "You can see where the other car is, and he walks towards us, on purpose. That's probably the most blatant thing I've seen in a long time. If you watch most pit guys, they try and get out of the way of other people, so that was a bit of a d--- move, to be honest. I'm pretty annoyed with that. We had a strong car all day and if that's the way they want to try to win, that's pretty bad.
"I don't know what to say," Dixon added. "You look at the people in race control and how they make their calls too, so I look forward to seeing about that. The consistency is horrible."
Target Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull refused to accuse Law of deliberately obstructing Dixon's pit exit. Hull, who calls Dixon's race strategy from pit lane, had a direct view of the incident.
"First of all, the reason they did what they did was for the safety of the guys that go over the wall, let's face it," Hull said. "But in reality, the guy turned his back and carried the tire into Dixon's sidepod. If you look at Dixon's sidepod, it's got rubber all the way on the top of it. He walked into us. So if that sets the precedent, at the next race can somebody walk into somebody else with a tire in their hand?
"The most important thing is the guy is OK."
Interviewed by NBC's Jon Beekhuis, Barfield claimed Dixon had half a car inside Power's pit box and defended the decision to penalize him.
"Ultimately, we have a duty to protect everybody in the pit lane," Barfield said. "If we have somebody who uses less than great judgment when they leave their pit box and we have an incident, then we have to make a statement by penalizing. And we're going to make that call."
Penske Racing president Tim Cindric also emphasized the pit lane safety angle. "I think you do have to protect the guys in the pits," he said. "I think if it were the other way around, I guess I'd expect the same penalty for us. It's not an easy one for anybody. You certainly don't want to win one that way."
However, NBC Sports showed a replay of the critical pit stop that decided the 2012 IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where Dixon and Power were pitted together in exactly the same fashion, though on that occasion Power was the race leader and arrived at his box first. At Mid-Ohio, Power's right rear wheel carrier showed considerably more alacrity in getting out of the way than Law did at Sonoma. He also held the used tire in his right hand, away from the pit lane, rather than practically shoving it into Dixon's sidepod with his left hand.
Dixon's teammate Dario Franchitti finished third on Sunday and was highly critical of Barfield's officiating.
"I'm pretty pissed off right now," said the four-time IndyCar Series champion. "We had one restart where I went up to Turn 2, got upside of Will, and he drove me off the track, and nothing was done about it. That's when Scott had his drive-through, as well. It wasn't a high point for the officials, I would say, in that section of the race."
Regarding the pit lane incident involving Dixon and Power's crew, Franchitti said: "I saw it. If people start doing that kind of stuff in pit lane, it gets very dangerous, almost just kind of sauntering back. We've always had a rule, no matter what team we've been racing with or against in a championship, any guy in pit lane, there's always that professional courtesy. That clearly wasn't the case today and that's disappointing."
Somewhat lost in the postrace controversy and acrimony was Power's first win since April 2012, a stretch of 25 races.
Unlike his two prior victories at Sonoma, Power wasn't the dominant driver on Sunday. But the actions of his pit crew and the subsequent penalty against Dixon denied the fans a chance to see the fastest drivers on the day put on a shootout for the laurels.
After Dixon pulled off to serve his penalty, Power led the last 15 laps and had to hold off Justin Wilson on a late restart for the win.
All I can say is bad sportsmanship. You can't avoid someone walking at you. No one on pit lane does that! There's a common etiquette.— Scott Dixon (@scottdixon9) August 26, 2013
"I feel bad for Scott, but I can't count the number of times that sort of thing has happened to us in the last two years," Power said. "It's a win and we'll take it. I owe my guys. They've worked so hard and I feel so great."
You have to be happy for Power, who took the 2010, '11 and '12 IndyCar Series championship battles down to the wire but hadn't won since he triumphed in Brazil in May 2012.
Expected to challenge for the title again this year, Power instead endured a challenging campaign with just a single podium finish prior to Sunday.
"I've been in the back of the pack and I've learned a lot about restarts," he said. "When you have a tough year, you really start searching, looking. You pick up things. It really feels like next year I'll come back more a complete driver."
Now 39 points behind Castroneves with four races remaining, Dixon's championship hopes certainly aren't lost. But they're not as rosy as they looked with 20 laps to go at Sonoma.
Two hours after the race, Dixon was still quietly seething, taking to Twitter to post: "All I can say is bad sportsmanship. You can't avoid someone walking at you. No one on pit lane does that! There's a common etiquette."
His manager, former Formula One and Indy car driver Stefan Johansson, was more blunt.
"@ScottDixon9 robbed of yet another win by the amateurs in @IndyCar race control. The usual inconsistency we've seen to often ..." he tweeted.
The IndyCar Series championship has gone down to the final corner of the final lap of the final race of the season for the past seven years without the benefit of an artificial playoff system.
But if that trademark last-gasp drama isn't present this year when the season wraps up at Auto Club Speedway on Oct. 19, IndyCar has only itself to blame.