The chequered flag had barely fallen on Helio Castroneves' first victory for 30 races at Infineon Raceway when rival team owner Chip Ganassi started doing sums in his head, as the Brazilian took a huge bite out of his man Scott Dixon's championship lead.

Castroneves dominated in Sonoma, while Dixon had a very rare off day that saw him fall to twelfth by the end of the 80-lap encounter, allowing his only rival for the crown to turn a 78-point deficit into one of just 43 points. While the Kiwi's revised advantage is slightly above the average margin with two races to go, he and Ganassi know that nothing is impossible - especially where Castroneves is concerned. Between 2001-07, the points leader has averaged a 35.1-point lead over his nearest competitor but, on three occasions, he was overhauled.

"I think, if Helio wins the next two [races], we just have to place fourth, so we should be able to do that," Ganassi calculated, correctly as it turned out.

If Castroneves dominates the remaining rounds at Belle Isle Park this weekend and at Chicagoland Speedway the Sunday after that, he could win a maximum of 106 points, increasing his season's total to 639. With six-time race winner Dixon currently sitting on 576 points, 'just' 63 points would be required from the final two races, an average of 31.5 points per race, just under the 32 awarded for a fourth-place finish, to claim his second series championship.

However, it would only take a repeat of Sunday's race for Dixon and Ganassi to start reaching for their calculators again.

The Kiwi made the first of his expected three pit-stops under the race's only full-course caution while running in the top five on lap 16, but was shuffled back out of the top ten during the next two stops as slower traffic and an inability to overtake on the undulating Wine Country circuit ultimately proved costly.

Dixon's lowest finish since St Petersburg in April was only his third finish outside the top ten all season, and left the Indy 500 winner scratching his head.

"I'm not upset with anybody particularly, we just did absolutely nothing right," he fumed, "I don't know why we stayed out when the car in front of us was three seconds slower and we couldn't make up any track position. Everything we did was wrong and we lost a ton of points. This is a race that's very tough but, hopefully, we'll turn it around next time. It was definitely a bad day, and I guess we just need to shrug it off and come back strong next week."

Hollywood couldn't have scripted the weekend any better for Castroneves and Team Penske. After the team's transporter burned to the ground en route to the race, at the expense of both primary cars and everything needed for the weekend, Penske bounced back to make do with what they had, ran fastest all weekend, started the race with both drivers on the front row and finished in the same order, with Castroneves taking maximum points ahead of Ryan Briscoe.

"People kept telling me that the door [to victory lane] would finally open, and today we broke through it," the Brazilian said of his long drought, "The door was really stuck, but what an incredible effort by Team Penske. I can't thank them enough. The attitude of those guys is priceless. Everyone has been working so hard since last Wednesday - taking cars to Charlotte and bringing cars back from Charlotte, converting cars from oval to road course. You're talking about two days work in twelve hours. When you see guys doing that, you just want to do your best."

Castroneves also benefited from a far better day at the office than his rival, praising the team for getting its strategic calls just right.

"I'm really excited about today, because the car was extremely fast and, for me, it was really fun pushing and pushing every lap for the entire race," he enthused, "That's what it's all about, and that's what made us win. We didn't save any fuel, we just kept going and going, and it paid off in the end.

"We didn't plan it like that but, with the traffic, we changed the plans lap by lap and pitted when we thought we were going to slow down. We never let our guard down, we just kept pushing and we came away with a win."

With the title at stake and not being a part of it, Briscoe was keen to deny that he was under any kind of team orders to keep from challenging his team-mate in the race, while Penske president Tim Cindric insisted that the only orders were for his two drivers not to run into each other.

"We never got in a situation where I was pressuring him for the pass," Briscoe maintained, "We started out the race and we were just conserving fuel, trying to run a good pace, but with good fuel mileage."

While Dixon maintains the upper hand in the title race, however, it was not all good for the Ganassi squad, which saw the New Zealander's team-mate, Dan Wheldon, mathematically eliminated from the chase.

The Briton, however, remains third in the standings on the strength of two race wins this season, and bounced back from ongoing rumours about his future within the team by clinching fourth place on the road after a steady drive based on an off-sequence pit-stop on lap ten.

"I give Chip a lot of credit," Wheldon said, "He came into the team meeting today and gave us the order that we were going to do something very alternative, and we did, and it just kind of played out perfectly.

"It was a great job from him and everybody. The pit-stops were really good and it was just one of those races. There was a pretty clear track most of the time, so it worked out. We started in the back [after qualifying ...] and it is so difficult trying to pass. Tony [Kanaan] was really slow at the end, but he was quick enough in the right places, so it was hard to pass him.

"It was a good day for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, but it's unfortunate for Scott. He was quick all weekend but that's the thing with these tracks, it's hard to overtake. He's one of the best guys out there and I think it's the strategy that cost him. But he'll bounce back, and he knows he's got a strong team-mate in his corner to look after him."

The various scenarios that could play out at Belle Isle this weekend would see Dixon clinch the championship if he wins the race, or keep the Brazilian in contention should the Ganassi car again finish outside the top eleven. Anything in between for the Kiwi would see him looking to see how his rival has done.


Join the conversation - Add your comment

Please login or register to add your comment