When Will Power finished race 1 in the heat of the late Texas day, he looked hot and bothered. But the moment he pulled out "3" in the blind draw setting starting positions for the second race of the night, he was bouncing around and celebrating as if he'd already won.
And the truth was that he pretty much had, especially when Scott Dixon pulled out "18" leaving Power's key rival for the 2011 IndyCar title, Dario Franchitti, with the only remaining grid position not yet drawn - 28th place, virtually at the very back of one of the series' largest grids outside of the Indy 500 in years. It didn't help that he had used up his "push to pass" in race 1 holding off Dixon and Power for his win.
Power was also aided by the presence of Wade Cunningham ahead of him on the outside of the front row of the race 2 grid: Cunningham wasn't just a rookie in his first ever weekend of IndyCar activity, he was also consigned to a backup car that he'd never driven before after he had managed to damage his race car (the same car piloted by Dan Wheldon to the dramatic Indy 500 victory two weeks ago) in an accident with Charlie Kimball in the first event of the evening. Cunningham did the only thing he could do in the circumstances at the restart: and stayed well out of the way.
That left Kanaan taking off like the proverbial scalded cat with Power in hot pursuit after seeing off a challenge from the fast-starting Ryan Hunter-Reay, but further back the field compressed and went multi-wide as a consequence of the mixed-up order. That suited Power just fine, because stuck behind this road jam were the two Ganassi cars.
By contrast, Power quickly found himself supported by both of his Penske team mates, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe easily finding their way through to the front of the field while Hunter-Reay was engaged in a wheel-to-wheel battle with Graham Rahal.
Dixon was also on the move through the field, but Dario - from ten places further back - was slower to gain positions, having added extra downforce during the interval in order to help handling through traffic as opposed to the open air of the lead that he had enjoyed in race 1. The difference in circumstances was clear, with Kanaan showing the inverse of the situation by running in the lead at the same sort of 213mph speeds that Franchitti could now but dream of attaining.
But Kanaan in turn was no match for Power, and finally on lap 41 after a prolonged period of pressure Power finally managed to pull off the pass on the KV Racing Technology car and claim the lead for the first time in the evening. That meant Dixon and Kanaan led Castroneves and Briscoe, with Scott Dixon up to fifth place having got around Hunter-Reay and Rahal.
In a repeat of the pattern seen in race 1, JR Hildebrand and Danica Patrick were among the first cars to come in for their first pit stop of the evening around lap 45 - again, still well short of any hope of being able to run the full race distance of 114 laps without a further stop. Danica had been suffering from terrible understeer in the early laps of the race and had to continually lift, resulting in her being passed by both Mike Conway and EJ Viso in the course of lap 27 alone.
The main bulk of the field came in between laps 51 an 54, with Dario Franchitti one of the last to come in but still needing a hefty dose of yellow to have any hope of eking out his fuel - and given Ganassi's recent history of fuel management, probably not too wise to press it to the absolutely limit in any case.
After the pit stops, it was a Penske lock-out at the front: Power still held the lead, with Helio and Ryan Briscoe his wing men in second and third holding off Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon; Dario Franchitti was still down in 15th place, not making the sort of progress he would have hoped for in the colder conditions of night-time. By contrast, Marco Andretti had started alongside Dario on the grid in 27th and was not up in eighth place, a gain of 19 positions. Where Dario was struggling in traffic, Marco was conversely saying that the #26 was great in traffic but struggling in clear air - go figure.
Dixon was showing he was much faster than Power's cohorts, closing the gap and passing both Penskes on lap 74, closing up on Power himself after the leader was held up by the about-to-be-lapped traffic of James Hinchcliffe and Justin Wilson running side-by-side ahead of him. But once Power finally broke through, he scampered away and disappeared, making the traffic work perfectly for him, while Dixon was suffering from having overworked his tyres to make up all those positions and was now struggling with a loose race car.
As the race entered its final 25 laps, there had been a complete absence of yellow flags and everyone was starting to have to consider when to make their final pit stop: early or late, tyres or no tyres? A mixture of strategies played out, but it turned into a disaster for Graham Rahal who pushed too far and ran dry, dropping down to the apron to crawl his way back to the pits - only to nearly get collected by Will Power who was moving to the apron to enter pit lane for his own scheduled stop on lap 106.
Fortunately Power's reflexes were true and he avoided the slower car, pitted - and came back out in the lead, giving Dixon no sign of weakness on which to pounce on fresh tyres. And Rahal made it back to pit lane without triggered a caution, which was bad news for Franchitti who badly needed a yellow flag no matter how brief in order to close up the cars and give him a chance to make a strike for the front.
No caution came: in fact this was the first IndyCar race to ever run caution-free at Texas Motor Speedway (and the first caution-free IndyCar race since the 2009 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.) Franchitti had made it up to 15th place by lap 85 and pressed on to take seventh place by lap 114, but by then he had run out of laps to work with: the chequered flag was out, Power had won, and it meant a critical points advantage gained by the Aussie over the Scot in the IndyCar title battle.
Franchitti could have been forgiven for souring on the idea of a blind draw deciding the starting grid for race 2, but in truth the people with the most to complain about the format were the fans: the lottery did a brutally perfect job of spacing out the main title rivals through the field and meant that we never got a genuine on-track battle between them, which is what everyone really wanted to see. While the blind draw experiment was worth trying, it also clearly now needs fine-tuning: even a completely inverted starting order would be better and arguably more fun and fairer on all concerned, seeing all the race 1 leaders have to battle their way up from the back row in race 2.
"You could see it sort of trickling down with the draw that it wasn't looking too good for us," said Dixon afterwards. "Obviously, myself starting from 18th and Dario 28th, it's a huge deficit when the competitor for the championship starts third and with not too much competition in front of him. "
But splitting the former 550k long (and dull) endurance race into two short, almost sprint race-type affairs was a marked improvement and added genuine interest and space to proceedings, and the large crowd seemed to endorse the new format as a hit with fans.
And certainly Will Power had no complaints with finally managing to clinch his first ever oval win. "This means so much to me and the boys," said Power. "We've been chasing this for so long. It was a fun race and great day. It was a good battle with Kanaan at the start and then Dixon came on strong. This is what we need for the championship!"
"The two-race format made things interesting and hopefully good for the fans," agreed Marco Andretti. "It would have been nice to have had a better draw than starting 27th, but we were able to make up all the ground on the track we could," he said, after falling back in the later stages of the race and had to settle for 13th place by the end.
Whether the twin-header will be back again next year at Texas - or any other venue come to that - remains to be seen. (Full race results