The signs were there throughout the practice and qualifying sessions that Will Power would be nigh-on impossible to beat at Barber Motorsports Park, but even so it was doubtful that anyone expected this level of domination from the Australian.
As he led the field to the green flag at the start of the race, everyone had their fingers crossed that there wouldn't be multiple accidents stemming from the new-style double-file restarts as we saw two weeks ago on the streets of St Petersburg in Florida. And at first the signs appeared good: Graham Rahal dabbed a wheel onto the dirt on the outside of turn 1, and rookie driver James Hinchcliffe managed to spin his way out of eighth place a few corners later, but otherwise everyone got through cleanly and no one was caught up in anything more serious.
Tony Kanaan in particular revelled in the opening moments, climbing from a poor 24th position in qualifying right up to 14th in just a few corners starting with an impressive run down the inside line into turn 1 that made up four places right away. The KV Racing Technology Team, which had been planning an extremely early pit stop to try an off-sync strategy to make up positions, suddenly found itself ripping up the pre-prepared plans and contemplating a whole new reality.
Sadly the green flag stint ended seconds later when JR Hildebrand clashed wheels with Raphael Matos in turn 6 which ended with Matos spun round and in the gravel, requiring the first caution of the afternoon. Both cars were able to rejoin the race, but after initially thinking the car was okay Hildebrand was forced to pit on lap 8 for a new nose after all.
Were we about to see another frustrating spell of continual cautions as we had at the season opener? In fact the next double-file restart on lap 3 was successful and the race was on for 35 laps of uninterrupted running, despite a spin at the back of the field for James Jakes which was dealt with by local waved yellows. Jakes would be one of the race's earliest retirements, his car catching fire when he was in the pits on lap 30; three laps earlier, Sebastian Saavedra has become the race's first official retirement with mechanical problems.
The relatively calm green flag period was not without its moments: Helio Castroneves had run wide into turn 1 at the restart and lost five places, dropping from fourth to ninth place; Sebastian Bourdais made a very nice move on Mike Conway on lap 12 to take away 17th position; on lap 27 Takuma Sato tried a move on Castroneves through turn 5 that resulted in contact and a spin for the Japanese driver from which he was able to recover; and shortly afterwards Graham Rahal made an aggressive overtaking move on Hildebrand - who was a lap down after his earlier extra pit stop - and the two made heavy contact as a result but were able to get going again without bringing out a full course caution.
With two pit stops a seriously tight call at Barber over 90 laps, some drivers including Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay opted for a three-stop strategy that saw them come in as early as lap 14; the majority of the cars eked out their fuel till lap 30. But when a caution came out on lap 37 it was clear that everyone was going to pit and get back in sync, and that fuel strategies were not going to be as important to proceedings as they had initially seemed to be.
The second caution of the afternoon came out on lap 37 when Alex Tagliani oversteered into turn 16 and lost the backend, beaching him in the gravel. Unfortunately this heralded a series of four more cautions over the next 25 laps, as the drivers - feeling a bit more cocky by this point - started to get racy and to forget the lessons learned in the multiple crashes of St Pete. And all the better for the fan enjoyment and racing entertainment it proved to be, for the most part.
It started in lap 40, after a three-lap yellow flag period to allow the track officials to sweep the track for debris and tyre remnants off the racing line that might interfere with the double-file restart. The cars all navigated the first turn 1 safely, but Ryan Briscoe and Dario Franchitti were squabbling over third place. Briscoe shut the door on Dario, and the Scot didn't take it well and fought back robustly through the following turns and finally the two banged wheels in a way that meant it was amazing that neither broke their suspension or the rubber didn't fuse together and throw one or both cars up into the air. Instead, Franchitti had the racing line while Briscoe was sent wide and lost momentum, making him easy prey for Oriol Servia.
But none of this brought out a caution: it was what happened back in turn 6 that did that. Simona de Silvestro made light contact with EJ Viso and spun the #59 round one-eighty degrees. At this point the situation was still recoverable, but Viso continued to roll backwards and as a result strayed into the path of James Hinchcliffe who was taking evasive action around the outside of the turn. The two cars collided and ripped off a tyre apiece, ending both their races. De Silvestro also climbed out of her car at this point, despite having seemingly made only slight contact throughout the incident; she was ushered back into the cockpit and eventually resumed.
Hinchcliffe was furious with Viso in post-race interviews. "Day 1 of racing school, you learn you the brakes and clutch. He hit the gas," he told reporters, adding: "If he hasn't learned it yet there's no point talking to him about it." Viso denied the blame, but rued the fact that he has seemingly been involved in some sort of collision or accident in almost every session of the two IndyCar weekends thus far in 2011. The two were filmed having an animated discussion later on in pit road, but the conversation seemed to end amicably with a handshake.
The next restart on lap 46 also didn't fare well. As the cars went through turn 4, Justin Wilson strayed too far over and trod on the front wing of Takuma Sato. The wing broke, sending up carbon fibre debris into the air and puncturing Wilson's rear left tyre, sending both cars to pit road - which was actually quite timely for Wilson, as the wrist brace protecting his injury from St Pete had broken and he needed to have a new one brought out while the team saw to his tyres.
This incident didn't bring out a caution, but the one that happened at the same time just a few metres behind them did. Mike Conway found his car getting light as it topped the hill into turn 4, and he lost grip. The car wanted to go straight on instead of making the turn, and Danica Patrick was right in his path. Conway's car caught the front of Patrick's and the contact hooked him around, spinning him off onto the grass and into heavy impact against the barrier that did extensive damage to the #27. Conway climbed out but seemed to be moving rather gingerly and he appeared winded, perhaps unsurprisingly given that it's only his second race back from those horrific injuries sustained at the 2010 Indianapolis 500 that put him out for almost a whole year.
The next restart on lap 49 was rather more successful despite several people staying onto the dirt verges and sending up clouds of earth through the first couple of turns, and finally resulted in some green flag laps. However, Scott Dixon and the Ganassi team were less than happy with the restart, complaining to the marshalls that Will Power wasn't abiding by the agreed line into the first corner and practically forcing Dixon off the track. The team muttered darkly that if Power did it again, they would order Dixon to "take him out."
During this period of the race, Ryan Hunter-Reay seemed to be having a grand old time of it - a move on Oriol Servia into turn 5 on lap 53 to take sixth place a particularly nice bit of driving. Unfortunately he then wrecked all that good work when he got alongside Ryan Briscoe on lap 58 into the turn 7 kink. It's not an overtaking point, as even Hunter-Reay seemed to conclude as he tried to back out of it: instead, he found himself out of room and he clipped the kerb, which destablised his car and sent it sideways into the side of Briscoe, who was propelled into a spin into the gravel that ultimately wrecked his suspension. Hunter-Reay was undamaged, but was outraged to be handed a penalty for causing an avoidable accident that saw him demoted to 18th position - a decision that seemed harsh but, on balance, unarguable.
The race went to caution for the recovery of Briscoe's beached Penske, and all the cars had the chance to come into the pits. With 30 laps remaining, the fuel situation was as marginal as could be, and the cars would definitely need more laps under caution to make it to the end. Would it all come down to people eking out their gas to the very end while others choked and died within metres of the chequered flag?
Will Power emerged from the pits still in first position, just as he had been right from the start of the race; and Scott Dixon was similarly still in second place. But suddenly right behind them was Danica Patrick, after she beat out Dario Franchitti for third via the highly risky gambit of going for a fuel-only pit stop which made up four positions for her on track. The Andretti Autosports team reasoned that her tyres were as good as the ones they had piled up for her in pit lane, so why take the time to make the change at all? They were about to find out the answer to that one ...
It was clear at the restart on lap 62 that Danica's car was sluggish to accelerate: Dario Franchitti immediately passed her to retrieve third place, and soon after she was also passed by Marco Andretti and Oriol Servia to push her down to sixth place.
She would have fallen further if the race hadn't gone yellow again almost at once. This time the cause was a clash between Justin Wilson and Raphael Matos out of turn 6. Contact from Wilson caused Matos to spin, and in doing so he turned right into the front and side of Wilson which lifted the #22 into the air in a nasty little crash that won't have helped Wilson's wrist injury one little bit. Wilson was most likely relieved to be done for the day and to be able to rest up and nurse his wrist in preparation for next week's outing on the streets of Long Beach; Matos was also out on the spot from the accident.
The long caution period meant that any concerns the teams had about fuel consumption were in the past - the drivers were good to go to the end of the race, and at the restart on lap 68 Scott Dixon made his biggest challenge on Will Power's lead of the entire afternoon; Power, however, had it covered, and there was no way for the Kiwi to pass. When Dixon dropped back into second, it seemed clear that the race win had been decided, and with no more cautions forthcoming for the remainder of the race distance he did indeed get no further chances.
The main storyline of the next 15 laps was on the plummeting #22 of Danica Patrick. She took the restart in seventh but was soon once again going backward on those unchanged worn tyres, overtaken on almost successive corners lap after lap by Vitor Meira, Charlie Kimball, a recovering Ryan Hunter-Reay - until in the end she was right at the back of the lead lap, and even then she was struggling. The Andretti Autosports team initially tried to reassure her that the ageing tyres would come good; then simply urged her to do her best; and then finally, far too late, brought her in on lap 94 for a new set of rubber which meant she was now a lap off the lead, the worse possible outcome of all possible scenarios. That no-tyre pit stop gamble had been an awful mistake.
In the closing laps, Will Power had pulled out a lead of over 3s from Dixon, who in turn was 12s ahead of his team mate Dario Franchitti in third who had a similar margin over Marco Andretti in fourth, with Marco heading a train of half a dozen drivers packed together, that included a battling Oriol Servia and Tony Kanaan. Under pressure, Servia made a mistake with three laps to go and locked up severely into turn 6 which almost allowed Kanaan through. Servia just held on and was extra careful next time around to cover the line with precision to make sure that Kanaan got no ideas.
They were followed by Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, the ALMS LMP1 champion sitting in for the injured Ana Beatriz and doing a fine job delivering a solid run and keeping his nose out of trouble, reaping the rewards of eighth place in his IndyCar début as a result. Takuma Sato would have been in this mix as well, but with two laps to go his car ran dry and he was forced into the pits for a splash and dash that saw him return to the track at the back of the lead lap.
But the win itself was never in doubt. Not even to the man himself, it seemed: "It was a rather relaxing day actually," Power said. "I was just cruising, but had to push, push toward the end" as he claimed his tenth IndyCar career win.
The win puts Will Power at the top of the IndyCar points standings
, albeit only by 7pts ahead of Dario Franchitti. Given that Power is the acknowledged master of road events at the moment, he needs to maximise his advantage in this early part of the season before the oval events start to take over beginning with the Indianapolis 500 in May, where the momentum may swing more toward Ganassi and Dario Franchitti.
Meanwhile, a big cheer for the person in third place in the championship this week: Tony Kanaan, despite signing up for KV Racing Technology only two days before the start of the season, is off to a flying start in his 2011 campaign.
IndyCar is in action again next week, for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 17.
Full race results and times
available in the results section.