Ryan Briscoe remains confident that he can still win his first IndyCar Series title despite the pit stop miscue that turned next month's season finale at Homestead into a three-way championship showdown with Ganassi's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.
Dixon won for the fifth time this season, beating Franchitti to the finish line by 1.4475 seconds, at Motegi and taking the lead in the drivers' championship with one race remaining.
Before the race, Briscoe had a 25-point lead in the championship and seemed on the verge of clinching the title. He left Japan in third place in the standings, eight points behind Dixon and three behind Franchitti.
Briscoe had just taken the lead when he lost control while getting on the throttle as he exited pit road midway through the race. His Penske Dallara-Honda slid sideways and into the inside retaining wall, collecting a timing cone in the process.
"I just gassed it too much leaving my box, and the car spun and hit the wall," Briscoe said. "We had to change the front upright. The team did a great job doing it in the time they did, but unfortunately our day was pretty much done. I just brought the car home without pushing it too much at the end. The good thing is that it's only eight points to Scott. I feel really good going into Homestead."
Dixon quickly realized something was amiss with his competitor while the cars idled around the track under caution.
"I could only see sparks," Dixon said. "I guess the bottom of the cone had screws in it, and that's what created the sparks under the car. You can pretty much see under the car in front of you, and I could see a big black thing under his car. Then when I got to see the side of it, I could see a big green thing under the suspension. I was quietly surprised.
"It was a feel-good moment, to be honest. He probably had the same feeling when I had a terrible race in Sonoma. It was what we needed. We needed to get maximum points."
Briscoe had been running a distant fourth but caught a break when a caution came out for Mike Conway's crash while he was in the pits, having stopped later than the other frontrunners. Told in the pits that the field was closing on him, Briscoe said he might have been too aggressive trying to exit the pits quickly and stay in the lead.
"I was pretty upset with myself when it happened," Briscoe said. "I apologized to the whole team. I was really disappointed. I knew at the time that the car was broken and we were going to have to lose laps fixing it."
Franchitti could have been the one to take the points lead from Briscoe had he not lost out to Dixon when he slid high into the marbles in Turn 2 while trying to lap Raphael Matos immediately after the second pitstops.
"I went to the inside and [Matos] came down, so I moved up the track and he moved up," said Franchitti. "He kept moving up until I hit a bump and ended up in the marbles. I almost hit the wall. I managed to gather it up, but by that time Scott had a massive run and passed me. It was unfortunate to lose the lead that way, but we've seen that from him all year."
Dixon admitted that he probably would not have been able to pass Franchitti without Matos' intervention.
"It would have been tough," Dixon said. "We had equal cars toward the end. The first two stints, Dario had a better car than me, but once we made the changes to the front aero, it made a big difference.
"You could tell at the end that at the end we had the better lap times, and I don't think there was any way he was going to overtake us. Here, you're a sitting duck on restarts, so I might have had an opportunity to make a pass later in the race, but it would have been tough."
The result means that Dixon leads Franchitti by five points and Briscoe by eight heading for Homestead, and with the IndyCar scoring system offering 50 points for first and 40 for second, all three know that a win will secure the championship whatever their rivals do.
"It's what we expect in IndyCar racing," said Dixon. "It's going to come down to the final turn of the final lap of the final race. When it comes down to it, it's winner-take-all."