Will Power went from ninth to win at Barber two weeks ago, and topped it Sunday at Long Beach – coming from 12th to win on the streets in southern California. The win is also his second at Long Beach, and first for Team Penske since Helio Castroneves won in 2001.
“After last week, you can never say never; but I thought it'd be very tough to win,” Power said. “I had to save so much fuel to get there. I used some fuel to get around people, and Tim told me you have to save fuel, and be as quick as I could doing so.”
While Power starred, Simon Pagenaud was in another stratosphere on the day – with both his middle and last stints run at an absolutely storming pace to first gain enough of a gap on Power prior to pitting, and then close down that gap after pitting. Power pitted twice and Pagenaud stopped three times on the day.
“It was great, and the car was fantastic,” Pagenaud said. “It's Long Beach and I really love this place. With one more lap, I would have given him a hard time.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay finished third on the road, but was penalized 30 seconds for avoidable contact with Takuma Sato at turn 6, as Sato was in line for his first podium finish of his career and the first for the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team on its return to full-time IndyCar competition.
James Hinchcliffe benefited at Hunter-Reay's expense, the Canadian garnering his first career IndyCar podium at the same track where he scored his first top-five finish one year ago.
“I feel really bad for Ryan,” Hinchcliffe said. “I owe him a lot, as I followed him through for a lot of passes. It sucks to get at his expense.”
The colorful Canadian admitted he'd lost a bet with Wade Cunningham, and now that he has secured his first podium, he'll be clean shaven for the series' next race in Brazil. If he wins the Indianapolis 500, Hinchcliffe said he'd shave his head.
Tony Kanaan and JR Hildebrand rounded out the top five, on a day where Chevrolet teams fully maximized their strategies and avenged the series of 10-spot grid penalties that plagued them going in. Seven of the top 10 finishers were Chevrolets, with only Pagenaud, the stationary Sato and Justin Wilson providing Hondas respectable results.
The top Lotus finisher was Oriol Servia in 16th. Chip Ganassi Racing had a brutal day with all four of its cars finishing 15th or worse.
From the pole, Dario Franchitti should have had nothing to lose, but the young man to his outside proved he wasn't about to let the leader go without a fight. Promoted to his first ever front row starting position, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing rookie Josef Newgarden went for it on the opening lap, and came up empty.
Newgarden went to Franchitti's outside around turn 1, but wasn't able to complete the pass without the rear of his car swapping ends and hitting the tire barriers. There may have been contact between the two, although replays didn't clearly show Franchitti and Newgarden made contact. Regardless, Newgarden's race was over before it ever had the chance to fully materialize.
“I saw one replay and had a feeling that would happen,” Newgarden admitted. “Thought I would get alongside, get touched on exit and into the wall. Maybe it wasn't the right move. I thought I had a good run on him, and it's a good learning experience. I'm hired to drive for the team and I feel bad for them.”
The incident was reviewed with no further action taken, to which Newgarden's team owner Sarah Fisher tweeted, “Politics. Love it.”
Whether or not Franchitti would actually be penalized became a moot point, because his bigger issue was struggling on restarts. After the initial yellow flag, Justin Wilson came by for the lead, and within a few laps, Pagenaud had done likewise for second. Before the end of his first stint, Franchitti had dropped out of the top five.
The new rule allowing the pits to stay open the instant a full course yellow hit struck at lap 20 for the first time. Sebastien Bourdais nosed into the turn 9 tire barriers, and although he didn't suffer significant damage it did change the complexion of the race. Leaders Wilson, Pagenaud, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and Mike Conway all pitted, while several cars waited to go off strategy.
Although the green flew two laps later, the first major accident testing the structural rigidity of the new Dallara DW12 and its rear bumpers came at lap 22 when Rahal moved slightly right going into turn 8, coming across where Marco Andretti then collided with him. Andretti's car careened over the right rear wheel pod and flew airborne, before crashing into the tire barriers.
Unsurprisingly, they had different perspectives on the incident.
“He wasn't going to make the corner no matter what,” Rahal claimed. “I think it slipped underneath me. He was going to shoot long how deep we were because he was already braking.”
Andretti countered, “There's one thing blocking, but there's another thing chopping. That was a chop.”
The early yellows affected how the race evolved, but with no further yellows, the race developed into a flat out blast to make different strategies work. Pagenaud's first stop wasn't without incident, as he contacted one of Power's tires on exit. Still, he was not penalized for the contact. As it became apparent Pagenaud was on a three-stop strategy, he could run flat out while Power's longer middle stint, aided by yellows, ran for a full 33 laps. Pagenaud pitted for his second stop on lap 48. In the 22 laps that followed, Pagenaud increased his lead over Power to 18.8 seconds – consistently running lap times in the 1:09 range while Power countered with slower 1:10s or 1:11s in the quest to make his strategy work. Power pitted for the second and last time on lap 64, needing to go 31 laps to make the flag.
Pagenaud pitted on lap 70, at the immediate moment he hit a four-car train of backmarkers. He exited the pits 14.2 seconds behind Power, and had 15 laps to close back the gap. He got within 0.8675 of a second by the flag, and described those two stints that were driven at the maximum.
“I asked them at some point where I was, because I didn't know what was going on,” he said. “I was just pushing as hard as I could with what they were saying. At the beginning of the race they said, ‘Do this fuel mileage, and you need to go as fast as you can,' so I did. Once we started thinking about the three-stop strategy it was clear I had to push and not save fuel.
“So I pushed as hard as I could when Will was behind me. I realized if he wasn't staying up with me, it's because he was saving fuel, so I knew he was going to the end and I wasn't, so I was trying to open the gap.”
Power, methodically rather than aggressively, progressed up the order until he was in a prime position to pounce. Most of his race was spent dicing with Sato, who was in a better fuel position having stopped two laps earlier on his last pit sequence. Had Power not throttled back enough to make the finish, Sato could have been in the running.