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Lining up on the grid in 17th place for this weekend's GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma Raceway - a track where it's notoriously difficult to pass - Britain's Mike Conway would have been forgiven for doubting that he had any sort of chance of getting into the top ten.
But Conway's been in this position before: he started in 17th place at Long Beach earlier this year, and won the race. He also started outside the top ten in the second round of the Toronto doubleheader last month, and won that race too. If there's anyone who can conjure up a rabbit out of the hat in terms of results that defy the qualifying odds, then Conway's your man.
He really did come close to another spectacular success this weekend at Sonoma, too: differing pit stop strategies meant that he found himself in second place to Tony Kanaan for a restart on lap 39, and when the green flag came out Conway wasted no time in forcing his way past the Ganassi car to take the lead - and immediately start disappearing off down the road. Unfortunately the final round of pit stops closed up the field again and forced Conway to go into extreme fuel saving mode for the remainder of the race. Graham Rahal took over the lead but was himself unable to make it on fuel, and with three laps to go Conway was passed by Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
"I was doing all I could keep Scott and Ryan behind me," Conway recalled of those final laps. "The team knew that Graham had to pit for fuel. I could see that the boys behind me were a little quicker and I was trying to save as much fuel as possible too. It was tricky but I thought I was making a good job of it.
"I was hitting my fuel number through the last stint. I thought it would be good but I suppose the lap when I used the overtake button to keep back Scott came back to cost us. There wasn't much more I could do at that point and I thought I could hang on for a podium."
Unfortunately the car spluttered and died two corners from the finish of the race, and the #20 ended up powerless, rolling across the line in an unrepresentative 14th place: "When I got to turn 10 on the last lap, the engine just died," he confirmed. "It picked up a little into turn 11 but finally just shut off in the corner."
It's Conway's last outing with Ed Carpenter Racing, as he hands the car over to the eponymous team owner for the final outing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana next weekend. That will be the last race for ECR, which will be merging with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing over the off-season to form the new two-car CFH Racing operation. Whether Conway will be back with the merged team is yet to be decided.
"It was a tough way to finish the year with the Ed Carpenter Racing team with the Fuzzy's Vodka car," admitted Conway. "I really want to thank Ed and his guys, the Fuzzy's boys, Chevrolet and our suppliers for a great year. It was a very good year. Two wins for me and one for Ed so far. I would love to see Ed win it next week in Fontana too."
Conway's disappointment was mirrored by Graham Rahal, who at one point looked set to clinch his first Verizon IndyCar Series win since 2008. All he had needed to make the race distance was a handy caution period toward the end, but none materialised.
"We fought hard and obviously we passed the guys that we needed to pass when we needed to pass them and got to the front," said Rahal after the race. "Unfortunately we came up short again. Man, I don't know when things are going to break for me. We'll just have to keep working hard, keep our heads down.
"For a second I thought it might happen," he added. "The team didn't say anything to me for a while and I thought 'Shoot, I might have gotten the mileage.' They were just counting down the laps to go and the next thing I know, the light comes on and I've got to pit.
"All around its disappointing but that's the way it goes," he sighed. "We were taking extreme measures [to conserve fuel], we were running a yellow map and running with all kinds of stuff off to try to get an extra bit of fuel and we got what we needed to get. But it just wasn't going to be enough."
Dale Coyne Racing's Justin Wilson was one of those on the right side of the fuel-saving equation - although only just. The car appeared to be on its last legs through the final corners of the race which allowed Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power to go side-by-side with him through turn 12 setting up a drag race to the finish line. While it initially appeared that Wilson had lost out, a post-race review by the stewards reset the order and handed Wilson ninth place ahead of his two rivals.
"It was a tough day because we weren't the best on our tyres," said Wilson, who had gone off-strategy early in the race. "I knew this would be key in having a good race and I wasn't able to make them last. I pushed as hard as I could but the end results is frustrating.
"We had a good strategy and in the end, moving up from 16th to ninth isn't the worst result in the world," he shrugged. "The team did a great job and if things had fallen a bit differently, I think I could have finished a little bit higher. We have a quick turnaround to next weekend where I hope I can have a better performance."
Sonoma race report
| Race results
| Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings