Team Penske's Helio Castroneves took his first victory since Texas last June as he played a canny fuel strategy game to win the IZOD IndyCar Series' inaugural race at Barber Motorsports Park.
Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti followed the same two-stop plan to complete the podium, while Will Power's run of wins came to an end as the team's choice of three stops left him fourth for Penske.
But the race could easily have seen Andretti Autosport's Marco Andretti win for the first time in nearly four years, as he led for much of the distance before his fuel conservation bid failed and he had to make a late pit stop, dropping him to fifth.
With passing extremely difficult at the undulating Alabama track, the race soon became a tale of pit tactics. Some drivers, led by Andretti Autosport's eighth-placed Tony Kanaan, chose to make their first of three stops at the earliest opportunity in the hope of vaulting to the front later.
Front-row starters Power and Mike Conway (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing) were among a group who pitted when the first yellow came out on lap 11, caused by Takuma Sato's seventh-placed KV car grinding to a halt with a throttle problem.
But Castroneves, Andretti and the Ganassi duo decided to stay out and stretch their fuel mileage as long as possible in the hope of making just two pit stops during the race, a strategy that turned out to be ideal, given the dearth of yellows thereafter.
Castroneves led away at the green flag after the Sato yellow – but only as far as Turn 5, where Andretti muscled past him and into first place. The American edged clear initially, which ultimately proved his undoing, for Castroneves, Dixon and Franchitti were throttling back and saving more fuel.
When Andretti had to come in for his second pit stop with 34 laps to go – four more than even the frugal Castroneves had managed on a single fuel load – it was obvious that Andretti's only hope of winning was for a yellow to come out as he would have to stop a third time. He drove as conservatively as possible, hanging back behind midfielders Graham Rahal and Raphael Matos for lap after lap while defending from Castroneves and Dixon, but gave up and pitted eight laps from the end.
That dropped Andretti to fifth behind Castroneves, Dixon, Franchitti and Power, who inevitably emerged as the top three-stopper. Ironically, just three laps later, the yellow Andretti required came out when Simona de Silvestro spun her HVM car at Turn 5 – although it's doubtful whether it was long enough to have saved Andretti's strategy.
A two-lap shoot-out followed at the green, with Castroneves comfortably holding off Dixon to ensure that, while Power's winning streak ended, Team Penske remains undefeated in the 2010 IndyCar season. Dixon was left frustrated that Race Control had adjudged that he had passed Andretti and Castroneves before the line at the start and ordered him to relinquish the positions, and replays suggested he had grounds for grievance.
Ryan Briscoe made it three Penske cars in the top six, while Justin Wilson (Dreyer & Reinbold) set the fastest lap and put determined moves on Conway and Kanaan as he made up ground from his disappointing grid slot to finish seventh.
Alex Tagliani's early first stop helped him to come through from 21st to 10th for FAZZT, ahead of Dan Wheldon (Panther) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti).
Pos Driver Team Gap
1. Helio Castroneves Penske
2. Scott Dixon Ganassi + 0.5703s
3. Dario Franchitti Ganassi + 8.1590s
4. Will Power Penske + 8.6639s
5. Marco Andretti Andretti + 9.7410s
6. Ryan Briscoe Penske + 10.9611s
7. Justin Wilson Dreyer & Reinbold + 11.5478s
8. Tony Kanaan Andretti + 12.8533s
9. Mike Conway Dreyer & Reinbold + 13.3162s
10. Alex Tagliani Fazzt + 14.8450s
11. Dan Wheldon Panther + 15.2007s
12. Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti + 15.6727s
13. Mario Moraes KV + 16.7242s
14. Raphael Matos Luczo Dragon de Ferran + 1 lap
15. Hideki Mutoh Newman/Haas/Lanigan + 1 lap
16. EJ Viso KV + 1 lap
17. Graham Rahal Sarah Fisher + 1 lap
18. Vitor Meira Foyt + 1 lap
19. Danica Patrick Andretti + 1 lap
20. Bertrand Baguette Conquest + 1 lap
21. Simona de Silvestro HVM + 1 lap
22. Mario Romancini Conquest + 1 lap
23. Alex Lloyd Dale Coyne + 1 lap
24. Milka Duno Dale Coyne + 4 laps
25. Takuma Sato KV + 22 laps