Helio Castroneves took his second straight IZOD IndyCar Series race win with an utterly dominant performance at Motegi.
In the Penske driver's wake, Dario Franchitti trimmed Will Power's championship lead to 12 points by beating the Australian to second, setting up a tight finale with 50 points available for victory at Homestead in two weeks' time. The result also wrapped up the inaugural A.J. Oval Championship Trophy oval crown for Franchitti.
Castroneves always had this race under control, leading by as much as five seconds at one stage as Ryan Briscoe (Penske) and Franchitti (Ganassi) disputed second – running wheel to wheel for several laps in the opening stint.
"Team Penske is about execution and they gave me a fantastic car," said Castroneves. "Every time I wanted to go for it, the car was responding."
The only time Castroneves appeared to be under threat was after the third yellow, when Raphael Matos (De Ferran Dragon) and Hideki Mutoh (Newman/Haas) stayed out while the rest of the field pitted and jumped to the front. Castroneves then had a slow restart and was pounced on by Briscoe and Franchitti into Turn 1, with the reigning champion sweeping from fifth to third in a single three-abreast move. But it did not take long for both Penske drivers to repass Franchitti and then pick their way to the front past Mutoh and Matos.
Briscoe managed to get a 3sec cushion over Castroneves during this period, but once in clear air the Brazilian wiped that deficit out. He then leaped back ahead in the next stops and controlled the race thereafter, ultimately winning by a comfortable 4.5sec.
“I was really the only person that could mix it up with Ryan and Helio all day,” said Franchitti. “Helio was just in a class of his own in terms of sheer speed, but we could get him on the restarts occasionally. I was fighting as hard as I could with those guys. Will's guys did a great job in the pits and got him back up into contention.”
Franchitti and Briscoe continually exchanged second place both in the pits and on track, until Power slipped past Briscoe for third shortly after the last restart with 31 laps to go. The points leader had drifted back from his third place on the grid and was as low as 10th for a while – losing a lot of ground on lap 40 when he slowed prematurely for a yellow before it was officially called.
Power edged back into contention, though and, helped by an excellent final pit stop, took his first oval podium place. He had a look at passing Franchitti as they lapped Milka Duno's Dale Coyne car with four laps to go, but could not complete the move and settled for third.
“I had a good (first) experience at Motegi; I know how to run in traffic now," Power said. "I've never finished ahead of Dario on an oval and one day I'll get it – hopefully this year because if I don't he'll win [the championship].”
Danica Patrick had a strong run to fifth in the leading Andretti Autosport car, just ahead of Scott Dixon (Ganassi) and Tony Kanaan (Andretti). Newman/Haas' Graham Rahal charged through from the midfield to eighth, winning a late three-way fight with Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti) and Dan Wheldon (Panther).
The Motegi crowd appeared significantly bigger than in previous years – a rise which must be attributed to the popularity of Takuma Sato. The KV driver had a solid race to 12th, taking only his second finish on an oval and his second-best result of a promising but inconsistent year. Fellow local favorites Mutoh and Roger Yasukawa (Conquest) were 14th and 20th.
The race saw several heavy accidents, with apparent car problems sending Mario Moraes (KV) and Alex Lloyd (Dale Coyne) into the wall. While Lloyd – already running 16 laps down after throttle linkage issues – immediately hopped out of his wrecked, burning Dallara unhurt, Moraes has been flown to hospital for checks, having reported back pain following his violent impact earlier in the race. He remained conscious and alert while being carefully extricated from the car and placed on a stretcher.
What could be Paul Tracy's last run with Dreyer & Reinbold ended with a damaged car following a brush with the wall, and Bertrand Baguette crashed his Conquest Dallara on only the second lap.
Pos Driver Team Time/Gap
1. Helio Castroneves Penske 2h04m04.4780s
2. Dario Franchitti Ganassi + 4.5746s
3. Will Power Penske + 5.0743s
4. Ryan Briscoe Penske + 6.4825s
5. Danica Patrick Andretti + 7.6057s
6. Scott Dixon Ganassi + 8.3641s
7. Tony Kanaan Andretti + 9.4093s
8. Graham Rahal Newman/Haas + 11.7163s
9. Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti + 12.2125s
10. Dan Wheldon Panther + 12.4720s
11. Marco Andretti Andretti + 15.5007s
12. Takuma Sato KV + 16.0693s
13. Alex Tagliani FAZZT + 17.6774s
14. Hideki Mutoh Newman/Haas + 18.2811s
15. EJ Viso KV + 18.7349s
16. Justin Wilson Dreyer & Reinbold + 19.4293s
17. Vitor Meira Foyt + 20.1047s
18. Raphael Matos De Ferran Dragon + 21.2346s
19. Milka Duno Dale Coyne + 3 laps
20. Roger Yasukawa Conquest + 5 laps
Alex Lloyd Dale Coyne 131 laps
Paul Tracy Dreyer & Reinbold 114 laps
Simona de Silvestro HVM 85 laps
Mario Moraes KV 66 laps
Bertrand Baguette Conquest 1 lap