Will Power takes championship lead by 11 points with two races left
For Target Chip Ganassi Racing, it was a day to remember and a day to forget depending upon the driver.
Scott Dixon was almost perfect from the pole position on Saturday night at Twin Ring Motegi, leading all but one of the 63-lap Indy Japan: The Final en route to his second IZOD IndyCar Series victory of the year.
“It was a team effort across the board,” said Dixon, who will go down as the final IndyCar winner (for now) at the Twin Ring, which will not be part of the schedule in 2012.
“I had a brilliant car to drive. That almost made it not easy, but stress-free at some points of the race. As a whole, the team, myself, the pit crew, strategy -- everything was flawless. We had no mistakes today. To win races at this level, that's what you need to do.”
But his teammate, Dario Franchitti, had a much tougher time. Franchitti got into the back of Ryan Briscoe on a Lap 25 restart at Turn One, causing Briscoe to spin out and collect another Ganassi Racing pilot in Graham Rahal. All three cars continued on, but Franchitti was penalized for avoidable contact and was kicked back to 23rd at the rear of the field.
The Scotsman charged all the way back to eighth at the finish, but it wasn’t enough to keep title rival Will Power, who finished second behind Dixon after failing to catch him on a restart with two laps left, from taking the points lead by 11 markers heading to the next race on Oct. 2 at Kentucky Speedway.
“We tried everything we possibly could to get Dixon, but he was very aggressive and he really deserved the win,” said Power, who also captured the Mario Andretti Trophy as IndyCar’s top road/street racer for the second year in a row.
“It was a good day for us points-wise in the championship but I'm really not worried about points right now. I just need to keep finishing in front of [Franchitti] the rest of the way and we'll be fine.”
As for Franchitti, he was understandably hard on himself.
“I made a risky move on the restart,” said the two-time defending series champion. “I thought there was a gap and Ryan [Briscoe] was going wide on the entry and that was that. It was just a stupid move and we had a great fight back from 25th.
“Great job by the guys in the pits and I drove as hard as I knew how. I shouldn't have put us in that position. We still have it all to play for, but I keep making it more difficult.”
Franchitti may have also caught a break, as his avoidable contact penalty basically stuck him where he was already at thanks to the crack-up – at the rear of the field, near Briscoe.
Regardless, it still made for a dramatic effect in the championship, as he lost the top position that he had held for months.
"If you win or if you lose, you always look at the championship as a whole,” said Franchitti. “Today, Loudon, Texas, Indy and on and on. You always look at these things, but Will can do the same with his races. That was a mistake today. Shouldn't have made it."
If the IndyCar twittersphere was any indication, some fans were also wondering if Race Control had made mistakes as well.
After Franchitti’s penalty came another for Tony Kanaan – who was given an actual drive-thru penalty after being caught speeding on pit road – and a no-call on Sebastien Bourdais, who made contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay at Turn 3 that spun out the American with just a few laps to go.
"The reason we deemed [the Bourdais-RHR contact] a racing incident is because Bourdais made a mistake coming off of Turn 2,” said race steward Al Unser Jr. “Ryan's choice to go on driver's right and then didn't give him enough room going around Turn 3.”
Also, Helio Castroneves lost a top-ten finish after being penalized for passing J.R. Hildebrand under yellow on the final lap of the race. That decision wound up setting the three-time Indy 500 champion off to criticize Race Control.
“I am very disappointed in the result and the decision to penalize us at the end,” said Castroneves. “I have said it before - the decisions by Race Control have been very inconsistent, this season especially, and I think today was just another example. I am really upset about it and I think it is very unfortunate for the fans and my fellow drivers.”
But his biggest gripe came down Sunday morning, when he tweeted a rough criticism of INDYCAR president of competition and chief steward Brian Barnhart.
“It is sad to see one person being responsible for bringing down an entire series,” tweeted Castroneves. “Brian banhart [sic] is inconsistent and even changes the rule book when is convenient for him, and his own personal interests. In the same race in International television he penalizes some but not others.
“Making the famous @paultracy 's words mine : Brian Barnhart is a circus clown ! Very disappointed for finishing 7th and being put to 22nd. This is just ABSURD !!!”
While Castroneves fumed, other drivers had better days. Marco Andretti claimed a solid podium finish in third place, his first podium since winning at Iowa earlier this summer.
“We didn't roll off the truck like this,” said Andretti. “We're definitely happy. Actually, I was surprised as well. We made gains. We just went in the right direction. We found the direction and we kept hammering at it and made gains every session.”
Alex Tagliani and Oriol Servia also had strong runs, finishing fourth and fifth respectively. Bourdais’ no-call ensured that he’d come home sixth, with Hildebrand placing seventh, Franchitti in eighth, Conway in ninth and hometown hero Takuma Sato capping the top ten.