Helio Castroneves snatched victory at Kentucky Speedway with a canny fuel strategy, staying out as the rest of the leaders had to make last-minute pit stops.
An additional stop during a mid-race yellow had put the Penske driver out of sequence with the rest of the pack. That extra few laps' worth of fuel paid dividends when the rest of the lead group had to pit in the final eight laps, while Castroneves was able to stretch his fuel mileage a few more laps to clinch an unlikely victory.
"We had an issue with our pit stop, but we started to make ground and head to the front," said Castroneves. "I tried to stay steady. You have to remember it is 200 laps. We were loose in the beginning, but at the end it was meant to be.
"I remember in 2008 here I ran out of fuel and finished in second. When the team told me to save fuel I was just trying to keep it up and stay in the draft. It was similar to what happened in 2008 – and this time it paid off for Team Penske.
Until the late splash-and-go stops, Dan Wheldon had looked set to take his first victory since 2008 and his Panther team's first since 2005. He still took third, while polesitter Ed Carpenter claimed a brilliant second in the Panther/Vision Racing joint entry.
"For Dan and I to finish second and third is a little disappointing, because we were so strong all weekend," admitted Carpenter. "Dan had a dominant car today and it's tough being in our position when you have a guy win on fuel mileage. We made a pretty big wing change after we were loose and that slowed us down in the pits. We dropped back a few positions and then worked our way through the field."
Championship leader Will Power (Penske) led for much of the race, but lost ground late on and only finished eighth, with his title rival Dario Franchitti (Ganassi) closing the points gap further by taking fifth, leaving them just 17 points apart with two rounds to go.
"Really, my night was quite good, although after my last stop I think I hit some oil from an earlier incident between Turns 3 and 4," Power related. "I pushed up straight towards the wall – I was very close to hitting it.
"Congratulations to Helio and Team Penske for bringing home the victory. We have our work cut out for us for the championship, but we still have the lead and onward we go."
Wheldon had quickly moved to the front when the race got underway, passing Power at an early restart then overtaking Carpenter on lap 11. The Panther duo ran one-two through the first stint, but when the first pit stops took place under green, it was Power who jumped to the front ahead of Scott Dixon (Ganassi) and Wheldon, while a slow stop for Carpenter saw him slip to 10th. Wheldon swiftly reclaimed second from Dixon and closed on Power, spending several laps side by side with the championship leader without being able to nose ahead.
The next pit stops happened just 30 laps later – earlier than ideal for the leaders, but prompted by a yellow after Vitor Meira, who had been running an excellent seventh for A.J. Foyt, tangled with the lapped Simona de Silvestro, whose spinning HVM car tagged Ryan Briscoe and sent the Penske Dallara into the wall, too. It was during the long caution for this incident that Castroneves came in for the extra stop that ultimately set him up for victory, allowing him to run longer than his rivals on each stint thereafter.
Power and Wheldon continued to battle it out through the following stint, before Wheldon finally got clear in the lead at the third round of stops, with Franchitti becoming his main challenger as Power lost ground and rejoined in fifth. Wheldon led with Franchitti, Andretti Autosport's Tony Kanaan, Carpenter and Marco Andretti on his tail – but all knew that they would need a splash and dash fuel stop in order to make the finish.
Kanaan, who had quickly made up for his awful qualifying result by charging through the field, was the first of the leaders to come in on lap 192. Wheldon lasted a further three laps and Carpenter another four before having to pit, which allowed Castroneves to hit the front. The Brazilian had kept a low profile all night, running in the upper midfield for a while then dropping right to the back when he made his extra stop. He gradually crept forward thereafter and as everyone else pitted, he emerged victorious by 13 seconds over Carpenter, who jumped Wheldon, Kanaan and Franchitti in the late stops.
A strong night for Andretti Autosport saw Andretti and Danica Patrick come through to sixth and ninth, split by Dixon and Power. Ryan Hunter-Reay had been on course for a top 10 finish in the fourth Andretti car, despite starting last and spinning on lap one, until a late mechanical problem.
Qualifying star Bertrand Baguette (Conquest) charged to third in the opening laps, later fell back, but still came away with a career-best 10th, ahead of Dreyer & Reinbold duo Justin Wilson and Paul Tracy. Newman/Haas' Hideki Mutoh could not maintain his strong qualifying form though, tumbling down the order and finishing 17th.
KV Racing had another disastrous night. Takuma Sato spun into the wall on the opening lap, EJ Viso was an early retirement with a brake issue, and Mario Moraes slumped from an early top 10 spot to finish 18th.
Pos Driver Team Time/Gap
1. Helio Castroneves Penske
2. Ed Carpenter Panther/Vision + 13.1597s
3. Dan Wheldon Panther + 13.9214s
4. Tony Kanaan Andretti + 13.9931s
5. Dario Franchitti Ganassi + 14.1968s
6. Marco Andretti Andretti + 14.5669s
7. Scott Dixon Ganassi + 15.1025s
8. Will Power Penske + 15.6142s
9. Danica Patrick Andretti + 15.8494s
10. Bertrand Baguette Conquest + 1 lap
11. Justin Wilson Dreyer & Reinbold + 1 lap
12. Paul Tracy Dreyer & Reinbold + 1 lap
13. Alex Lloyd Dale Coyne + 1 lap
14. Tomas Scheckter Conquest + 1 lap
15. Alex Tagliani FAZZT + 1 lap
16. Raphael Matos De Ferran Dragon + 1 lap
17. Hideki Mutoh Newman/Haas + 1 lap
18. Mario Moraes KV + 2 laps
19. Milka Duno Dale Coyne + 5 laps
20. Graham Rahal Sarah Fisher + 5 laps
Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti 174 laps
Sarah Fisher Sarah Fisher 134 laps
Vitor Meira Foyt 79 laps
Ryan Briscoe Penske 79 laps
Simona de Silvestro HVM 78 laps
EJ Viso KV 45 laps
Takuma Sato KV 0 laps