A victory by Scott Dixon and runner-up finish by teammate Dario Franchitti, coupled with Ryan Briscoe's uncharacteristic miscue after a pit stop, turned the IndyCar season finale next month at Homestead into a make-or-break race for all three drivers.
Dixon won for the fifth time this season, beating Franchitti to the finish line by 1.4475 seconds in the Bridgestone Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi and taking the lead in the drivers' championship with one race remaining.
Briscoe, whose crew needed 15 laps to repair the damage, finished 18th. Before the race, Briscoe had a 25-point lead in the championship and seemed on the verge of clinching. 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 No. 6 Team Penske Dallara-Honda slid sideways and into the inside retaining wall.
“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, who was trailing Briscoe when he returned to the track with the timing line cone dragging under the left-front suspension, noticed sparks from Briscoe's No. 6 Team Penske Dallara-Honda.
“It was a feel-good moment, to be honest,” Dixon said. “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. It's what we expect in IndyCar racing. It's going to come down to the final turn of the final lap of the final race.”
Franchitti was leading Dixon when he slid high into the marbles in Turn 2 while trying to pass Raphael Matos on the 102nd lap. Franchitti lost enough momentum that Dixon was able to pass him. “I went to the inside and (Matos) came down, so I moved up the track and he moved up. 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.”
Without the sudden slowdown, Dixon might not have passed his teammate and taken the lead, and Franchitti – not Dixon – would be leading the championship standings going into the finale.
“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.”
Seconds after Dixon's pass of his teammate, Briscoe caught a break when a caution came out for Mike Conway's crash while Briscoe was in the pits. Told in the pits that the field was closing on him, Briscoe said he might have gotten too aggressive trying to exit the pits quickly and stay in front of the field.
“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.”
As it was, Briscoe did stay in front, but 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.”
Following Dixon and Franchitti to the finish were the Newman/Haas/Lanigan cars driven by Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia. Mario Moraes, who started on the front row, finished fifth, followed by 2008 race winner Danica Patrick. Marco Andretti, Dan Wheldon, Matos and Helio Castroneves rounded out the top 10.
For Dixon, though, the win was a sudden and unexpected change of fortune.
“When it comes down to it, it's winner-take-all,” Dixon said.
Pos Driver Team Gap
1. Scott Dixon Ganassi 200 laps
2. Dario Franchitti Ganassi + 1.4475s
3. Graham Rahal Newman/Haas/Lanigan + 3.2002s
4. Oriol Servia Newman/Haas/Lanigan + 7.3720s
5. Mario Moraes KV +12.7643s
6. Danica Patrick Andretti Green +16.1392s
7. Marco Andretti Andretti Green +16.6513s
8. Dan Wheldon Panther +17.2646s
9. Raphael Matos Luczo Dragon +17.5790s
10. Helio Castroneves Penske + 1 lap
11. Tony Kanaan Andretti Green + 1 lap
12. Justin Wilson Coyne + 1 lap
13. Ed Carpenter Vision + 2 laps
14. Hideki Mutoh Andretti Green + 2 laps
15. EJ Viso HVM + 2 laps
16. Robert Doornbos HVM + 2 laps
17. Kosuke Matsuura Conquest + 5 laps
18. Ryan Briscoe Penske + 15 laps
19. Stanton Barrett 3G + 18 laps
20. Roger Yasukawa Dreyer & Reinbold + 28 laps
Ryan Hunter-Reay Foyt 157 laps
Mike Conway Dreyer & Reinbold 103 laps
Tomas Scheckter Dreyer & Reinbold 83 laps