Dario, Dixon dominate the headlines
HOUSTON -- To use Roger Penske's description, the Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader weekend was a bittersweet affair for the IZOD IndyCar Series' two dominant teams.
In the course of about 22 hours, Target Chip Ganassi Racing saw Scott Dixon use a convincing victory in the Saturday race to help turn a 49-point deficit to Helio Castroneves in the IndyCar championship into a 25-point lead. But it also ended the Houston weekend with four-time series champion Dario Franchitti in a Houston hospital after a multicar crash late in the Sunday race left the Scotsman nursing a concussion, two fractured vertebrae and a fractured right ankle.
Meanwhile, Team Penske's disappointment in watching Castroneves suffer through a miserable weekend that cost him his long-standing championship lead was somewhat tempered by Will Power's victory in the Sunday contest.
But by that time, the focus was on Franchitti's fate, as well as the 13 spectators and one series official who were treated for minor injuries from the fencing and debris that showered into a grandstand. The race result and the championship battle were far from the forefront of anyone's thoughts.
"I think it was a great race," Penske said. "I'm just sorry about the accident at the end. I hope Dario is fine and that the people are fine."
Until Franchitti got swept into the three-car wreck triggered by Takuma Sato, the biggest story of the Houston weekend was the remarkable turnabout at the top of the point standings. With a win on Saturday and a second-place finish behind Power on Sunday, Dixon outscored Castroneves by 74 points on a weekend when the Brazilian's car was carrying the colors of race title sponsor (and hometown corporate giant) Shell/Pennzoil.
But Castroneves suffered gearbox problems in both races, with the crushing blow Sunday administered by the punishing bumpy surface of the 1.7-mile temporary course that winds through Reliant Park.
Castroneves got limited qualifying time for the Saturday race and lined up 21st. Things went from bad to worse in the race when he suffered gear selector problems and spun several times on the way to 18th place.
Chasing his first Indy car championship, Castroneves' luck appeared to take a turn for the better on a bizarre Sunday morning. Rain washed out qualifying, meaning the grid would be determined by entrant points. Initially, it appeared that Helio would line up second; although he led the drivers' standings, his No. 3 car was docked 15 entrant points when it failed the underwing test following his win at Texas Motor Speedway in June.
Dixon was told he would start from pole position and went to the media center for a news conference. But an hour later, INDYCAR ruled that because Castroneves had been the points leader at the start of the Houston weekend, language in the rulebook written before the introduction of doubleheader weekends stipulated that he should actually be the pole sitter.
Thank you to everyone for all the well wishes. They mean a lot to me.— Dario Franchitti (@dariofranchitti) October 7, 2013
It didn't matter. After an aborted standing start, Dixon reported that Castroneves' car was spraying gearbox oil beginning on the second formation lap. An early caution period masked the problem, but after five green-flag laps in the lead, Castroneves drove over a severe bump in Turn 1 that caused his car to bottom out hard enough to crack the aluminum gearbox casing. Less than two laps later, he was stopped on the course.
The Penske crew replaced essentially the entire rear end of Castroneves' car. But his last, best shot at an Indy car championship may have slipped away.
"At the end of the day, it's frustrating and disappointing," said Castroneves, who led the IndyCar standings since April. "No one wanted this to happen, We've had great luck for most of the season. Now in a weekend, everybody's dream has become an interesting scenario.
"This hurts. This really hurts."
Dixon couldn't believe his luck and led the next 30 laps. But Power moved past him into the lead on Lap 40 and held it to the finish to claim his second win in what has generally been considered a disappointing season for a man who was pegged as a championship favorite.
"My plan today was to beat Dixon, or just do the best I can to try to beat Dixon," Power remarked. "Obviously you saw what happened with Helio, and that's very unfortunate going into Fontana.
"It's all about Helio winning the championship, whatever I can do."
Dixon and Power's personal relationship has been strained after controversial incidents in the past two races. On Sunday, Dixon claimed Power hit him prior to a restart, but he chose not to race his rival as aggressively as he could have down the stretch with the championship on the line.
Power started ninth on Sunday but was already up to third when Castroneves encountered his gearbox problems on the 11th lap. He took the lead from Dixon in Turn 3 immediately following a Lap 40 restart.
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"All in all it was a good fight between us," Dixon said. "We raced hard towards the end and he was definitely quick today. Congratulations to him -- it was good to see him back in Victory Lane."
Coming into Houston, Castroneves had completed all 2003 laps of competition this year, but his championship campaign unraveled in spectacular fashion in his sponsor's hometown.
Dixon cut the Brazilian's championship lead from 49 points to eight on Saturday, then outscored his rival 40-9 on Sunday.
"I think we knew we had a good shot at making the points level coming out of here because as a team we thought we could win both races on a street course," Dixon said. "We didn't expect to make that gain.
"But you can never predict how the competition is going to be or the problems they may have," he added. "I feel bad for Helio for the weekend he had. He's been pretty consistent throughout the year until now."
With Simon Pagenaud 55 points off the lead, Dixon and Castroneves are the only drivers in championship contention for the season finale at Auto Club Speedway. Castroneves' hopes lie in the fact that the Chevrolet engine has generally been superior to Honda on oval tracks this year.
A fifth-place finish at Fontana will guarantee Dixon his third series title.
"[Helio] is strong at the big oval, especially speed-wise," Dixon observed. "We've got a lot of work to do, but we've got to go with the mindset of trying to win the race. If you can do that or be in the top three on the podium, then job accomplished."
Indy car racing's return to Houston after a six-year absence was met with mixed reviews. A track build that generally takes three to four weeks was condensed into four days due to a Sept. 30 Houston Texans game at Reliant Stadium.
The circuit was not geometrically identical to the one used in 2006 and '07, which caused some consternation among the drivers. There was also a four-hour delay Friday morning while the most severe bump in Turn 1-- the one that eventually cracked Castroneves' gearbox casing on Sunday -- was ground down, and a temporary tire chicane was put into action for some sessions.
Searing heat and humidity on Friday and Saturday, followed by a cold front and rain on Sunday, didn't help matters. Franchitti's accident was the crowning touch on what had often been a trying weekend for organizers and participants.
"Being a track owner myself and putting the Detroit race together, I think these guys did an outstanding job," Penske said. "The people were friendly. It was clean. We had some issues with the track but after that, I think it went well. I give them a triple-A for the job they've done."
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