By Jeff Olson
Scott Dixon took the lead early, caught a break on a controversial pit stop by Ryan Briscoe, and went on to win a windblown RoadRunner Turbo Indy 300 on Sunday evening at Kansas Speedway.
The victory ended a brief season-opening slump for Dixon, the defending IndyCar Series champion who finished 15th in the 2009 opener at St. Petersburg and 16th last week at Long Beach. Dixon came into Sunday’s race 17th in the standings, but left in fourth place.
“We needed something,” Dixon said. “We needed a sniff of anything because all we’d had was a sniff of the back of the field. That’s frustrating. I was starting to look back to 2004 and how we had a miserable season after we won the championship. I knew the team could do it; we just needed to get everything right.”
Dixon took the lead from pole winner Graham Rahal on the eighth lap of the 200-lap race and held it until the 99th lap, when Briscoe took the lead in the pits. However, Briscoe caught a bad break when entered the pits just as Dario Franchitti crashed on the 153rd lap, letting Dixon pit under caution and retain the lead while Briscoe settled for a fourth-place finish.
Helio Castroneves, who ran into the back of Vitor Meira’s car on the 15th lap, recovered to finish second. Tony Kanaan was third, Briscoe fourth and Danica Patrick fifth. Marco Andretti finished sixth, followed by Rahal, Hideki Mutoh, Ed Carpenter and Dan Wheldon.
The win was Dixon’s first at Kansas, a 1.5-mile tri-oval that at which he’d qualified well but never finished better than third. “A lot of people have told me this place owed me one,” Dixon said. “It’s nice that right at the time we needed it, Kansas gave us some payback.”
He took the lead from Rahal by using momentum to overtake the struggling No. 02 car in Turn 4. From there, Dixon pulled away from the field until midway through the race, when an unusually long stop by Dixon’s Target Chip Ganassi crew put Briscoe in the lead. Dixon battled back, though, and put the No. 9 Ganassi Dallara-Honda into the lead when Briscoe committed to the pits just as Franchitti crashed behind him.
“We had the track position until we got caught out with that yellow,” said Briscoe, who crashed out of the Long Beach race when he hit Dixon under caution. “It’s really unfortunate, but I’m happy to be disappointed for that reason, that’s for sure.”
The fact that the Team Penske crew wasn’t allowed to work on Briscoe’s car angered Roger Penske, who claimed Briscoe had crossed the commitment line before the yellow flag, and this the pits should have remained open. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Penske said. “It could have cost us the race.”
Franchitti blamed Rahal for the crashing, saying he was going too slow as he dropped into pit lane inside of Turn 3. However, Rahal said he gave plenty of warning by dropping his left wheels below the white line before committing to the pit lane. “With the speed he was carrying, he wasn’t going to make it whether I was there or not,” Rahal said.
While Dixon and Briscoe were battling, Castroneves worked through the field after the early collision with Meira, who slowed suddenly in front of Castroneves. “He had some kind of problem,” Castroneves said. “All of a sudden he lifted. There was nothing I could do.”
Meira blamed the incident on Mutoh, who dipped unexpectedly in front of Meira, causing him to lift quickly. “He entered high and just tried to use the whole track in front of me,” Meira said. “I couldn’t go anywhere, so I had to lift. I would understand if that was 15 laps from the end, but not 15 laps from the start.”
Castroneves’ crew quickly replaced the car’s nosewing and got the No. 3 back into the chase. By the 40th lap, he was back into the top 10. By the 69th lap, after many of the top challengers had pitted, Castroneves was second behind Dixon.
“No question, we had a much better-prepared car this year than last year,” Castroneves said. “I’m very thankful for that. The crews did an incredible job with pit stops. Ryan was right there, and the top four cars all could have won the race. Whoever got into the lead was going to be the guy to beat.”
Kanaan ran steadily among the top five throughout much of the race and took the lead in the championship for his effort. His Andretti Green Racing team, maligned for its slow start in St. Pete and qualifying at Long Beach, has made a statement in the last two races. This time, all four AGR cars finished among the top eight.
“Consistency is definitely the key, but we need to work a lot harder to get this car to win races,” Kanaan said. “In the meantime, we keep finishing where we need to be. It feels good, but it’s so early in the season.”
In the end, Dixon celebrated victory at a venue that isn’t necessarily his favorite, put himself back in the championship race, and made a statement in the final race before next month’s Indianapolis 500.
“Road courses and street courses are my favorite races, and to start off the season with two DNFs at street races has been frustrating,” he said. “It hurts you in many areas -- the spot in pit lane, for example. I’m very happy. The win catapulted us to fourth in the championship. We’re still within a shot to win the championship, and we‘re definitely strong going into Indy.”
Pos Driver Team Time
1. Scott Dixon Target Ganassi 200 laps
2. Helio Castroneves Penske + 0.7104s
3. Tony Kanaan Andretti Green + 1.5022s
4. Ryan Briscoe Penske + 1.8872s
5. Danica Patrick Andretti Green + 2.6502s
6. Marco Andretti Andretti Green + 3.8013s
7. Graham Rahal Newman/Haas/Lanigan + 7.8233s
8. Hideki Mutoh Andretti Green + 8.5430s
9. Ed Carpenter Vision + 8.9871s
10. Dan Wheldon Panther + 9.7681s
11. Mario Moraes KV +20.9048s
12. Robert Doornbos Newman/Haas/Lanigan + 1 lap
13. Sarah Fisher Fisher + 1 lap
14. Justin Wilson Coyne + 1 lap
15. Ryan Hunter-Reay Vision + 4 laps
16. Milka Duno Dreyer & Reinbold + 5 laps
Stanton Barrett 3G 181 laps
Dario Franchitti Target Ganassi 151 laps
Mike Conway Dreyer & Reinbold 109 laps
Raphael Matos Luczo Dragon 95 laps
EJ Viso HVM 37 laps
Vitor Meira Foyt 14 laps