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."