After the grandeur of Indianapolis, the novelty of the Texas double-header, the thrills of Iowa, the crash-fest that was Toronto and the absorbing rematch at Edmonton, the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was unfortunately IndyCar back to its most average.
That much was clear from the start, when most of the field remained locked in its starting positions for the first third of the race. The exceptions were Marco Andretti and Helio Castroneves who both made up positions in the early laps; and James Hinchliffe, who went flying off onto the grass avoiding a swerving Alex Tagliani and consequently dropped to the back of the field.
Hinchcliffe was furious and radioed his pit demanding to know why no action was being taken against Tagliani, who earlier last week was placed under probation for having caused accidents at previous races: "Tag decided I didn't deserve enough race track to stay on the race track and I got pushed off in turn 5 so we fell right to the back," complained Hinchliffe immediately afterwards. But TV replays showed what Hinch was in no position to see - that Tag has swerved to avoid Charlie Kimball on the other side, and in any case had come no where close to touching the #06 before it moved right and lost traction on the grass verge.
The other notable incident during the opening lap was a clash between Dario Franchitti and Will Power who were starting alongside each other from the second row of the grid. The two banged wheels, Power giving the left rear of Franchitti a hefty clout that threatened to spin the #10 before Dario pulled it together. After the race, Franchitti made a point of mentioning the incident as "Will's best efforts at the start to spin me around" as if to rebut the accusations Power had made at Toronto about Franchitti driving dirty while he himself always raced clean. Power for his part merely shrugged and said that it was no different from what had happened at Toronto.
After that, the race settled down to a procession, until Hinchcliffe - still stuck at the back - decided that a bold move was better than nothing at all and opted to come into the pits early, even though it would mean a splash-and-dash stop late in the race unless some cautions materialised to help him stretch the fuel to the end of 85 laps.
Hinchcliffe's boldness seemed to immediately to pay off: Sebastian Saavedra, who a lap previously had lost a position to Danica Patrick when his brakes locked up, suffered the same problem on lap 22 - and this time ended up running off the track, through the dirt and into the tyre barrier at turn 2. That brought out a full course caution, which meant that virtually everyone would be coming into pit lane next time around - leaving Hinchcliffe suddenly at the front, a remarkable transformation in affairs.
Will Power thought he had pulled off a masterstroke when he dived into pit lane as the caution came out, but race control judged him to have come in after pit lane had been shut for the caution and so he was ordered to drive-thru instead, costing him positions and adding to the frustration of the day. He joined the rest of the field coming in for their stops minutes later, during which time Graham Rahal lost time when he had to brake to avoid James Jakes coming into the pit box just on front, which resulted in him stalling; Ryan Briscoe also lost time when there was a problem with his left front lugnut, while Simona de Silvestro hit a tyre laid out for Marco Andretti as she came into her own pit box.
At the restart on lap 27, Hinchcliffe was in second place behind Danica Patrick who had opted to stay out in search of some Hail Mary off-sync strategy that might bring her race to life. It didn't, and Hinchliffe and Dixon were quickly past her at the green flag - Patrick almost running into the back of the #9 in the process.
There was real trouble in the midfield when EJ Viso was forced to brake by JR Hildebrand swooping around him on the outside, resulting in Helio Castroneves making light contact with the rear of the #59, which tipped Viso into a spin that also caught Hildebrand. Castroneves was then unable to miss the accident in front of him, while Mike Conway went off-track on the other side in avoidance. Conway and Viso were least affected, while both Castroneves and Hildebrand had costly visits to the pits.
"I was running in a good position behind Sato, when suddenly JR who was a few positions behind, came in from the outside causing me to lose positions as I braked hard to avoid contact with him," Viso explained.
"I'm just very frustrated," said Castroneves, who had appeared frustrated for much of the weekend. " try to stay away from trouble but somehow trouble seems to find me. Somebody touched the #4 car and he lost control and hit me and we needed to come in and change our front wing. That really did us in for the race. ... To work so hard and finish 19th is really tough."
Up front, Hinchliffe continued to lead and doing an impressive job of staying comfortably in front of Dixon during the middle section of the race until lap 53, when he had to head to pit lane for his second fuel stop. So far, he was still a good two laps short of being able to make the end of the race without a final splash-and-dash, as proved by the way that the rest of the cars didn't come in until two laps later as they just passed the threshold. Scott Dixon was in next time around hoping that the few fast laps he had put in since Hinch surrendered the lead would allow him to "undercut" the Canadian in the pit stops and put him back in the lead without having
Dario Franchitti briefly inherited the lead from Dixon before coming in at the end of lap 57, leaving the race lead to the Penske duo of Will Power and Ryan Briscoe who had their sights on exactly that sort of "undercut" strategy to displace the Ganassi cars from the top spots. As long as there was no caution in the meantime, it could work a treat.
Naturally, Power's luck being what it is in 2011, there was promptly a full course caution. Graham Rahal has been trying to turn into turn 2 only to find Danica Patrick squeezing down the inside into the apex, and after multiple hits the #38 car of Rahal finally spun and was left stranded half-on, half-off the outside of the corner which meant a full course caution was unavoidable. Power and Briscoe were left out on track, while Franchitti has just managed to get into pit lane in time.
In fact it worked out so well for Franchitti that when he exited the pits, he passed the end of the pit lane just ahead of Scott Dixon who came flying past. As the course was under caution, overtaking was not allowed and Dixon was ordered to hand the position back to his team mate.
That was a minor annoyance for Dixon compared to the disaster that the Penske team now faced: now very low on fuel, Power and Briscoe had no option but to come in as soon as the pit lane was opened, but that meant they came back out on track well behind all those cars who had pitted in the preceding laps: they were in 17th and 18th respectively, Power staring at the rear of Ana Beatriz' #24 car.
"We were making great fuel mileage and we were going to go a lap or two longer than the leaders on the second stop, which would have put us in great position to challenge for the race lead in the last stint," Power explained later. "Basically, today we suffered for doing a great job of driving a smart race."
"We were just really unlucky today," agreed Briscoe. "But we just got caught out by the yellow flag. In the end, that's what really hurt us. It's just really frustrating. We had a great car today - a winning car - but we just caught a tough break."
At the restart, there was a brief battle for the lead before Dixon broke through and took the first turn ahead of Franchitti: whether any team orders (or simple team mate largesse) had been at work or not, Dixon was clearly in by far the faster car and the overtake was inevitable sooner or later. Once released he was well down the road, leading by up to 8s during the final laps which ran without further caution to the end of the race.
"I got a good restart," said Dario. "Maybe do too good, because Scott pulled in behind and drafted me and before the braking zone, he was alongside. He did a great job on that restart as he did every lap today, this weekend. He's been on fire!"
"Scott was just gone," agreed Hunter-Reay. "He had a great pace."
Dario settled into second place, but he wasn't enjoying this final set of scrubbed soft tyres and didn't seem to be able to get them to grip on the track, at times running off wide into the dirt and giving Hunter-Reay a sniff of a chance to try a move. But Hunter-Reay was oddly reticent to try anything - perhaps the probation he was under was weighing on his mind, as taking out the championship leader in a rash late-race move would definitely have incurred the wrath of Barnhart, but it seemed that he had decided to settle for third place and leave the top spots to Ganassi.
"Dario and I were about on the same pace," said Hunter-Reay at the post-race press conference. "I was quicker than him through some of the quicker corners, like turns 11 and 1, but he had me through every corner leading on to a passing zone. So I really never had a legitimate shot to take a lunge."
James Hinchcliffe's attempts to rise from first lap disaster, which had so nearly worked, came to an end shortly after the second restart when he spin out onto the dirt and found himself right back where his race had started - the end of the lead lap. This time though he knew it was his fault and could only apologise over the team radio to his crew.
"Made a rookie mistake," he confessed. "It's one of the tough things about being a rookie is that when you make those mistakes it's usually very public. And after the day we had its unfortunate because the guys did such a good job."
Charlie Kimball had a similar off-track spin into the dirt but was able to recover faster: "I pressured Tony Kanaan into a mistake for fifth," he said. "Not many people do that. I just went into the next corner pushing to get a gap but dropped a wheel, spun and ended up 11th."
Simon Pagenaud had his own scary moment earlier in the race on lap 34 when he came close to replicating the accident that had injured Justin Wilson and put Pagenaud in the car in the first place, running wide at turn 1 and bouncing across the undulating grass. Fortunately overnight work had done much to reduce the transition over the service road and so this time at least no harm was done to car or - more importantly - to driver.
But the final laps were pure frustration for Will Power and Ryan Briscoe, who did finally get past Ana Beatriz and made it to 14th and 16th respectively by the time the laps ran out, but had chiefly demonstrated just how difficult it is to overtake at Mid-Ohio. If the top cars struggle to overtake someone like Beatriz in a Dreyer and Reinbold, it's no surprise that the field was processional for much of the afternoon.
Which is not to underestimate how physical the road course is - it was certainly hard work, and Dixon's triumph is not to be underestimated. It's his 26th win in IndyCar but his first win this season, not having seen victory lane since claiming victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2010, and it has been long overdue as far as the Kiwi is concerned.
"I'm just excited for the team," he said. "Dario has obviously been doing a hell of a job this year, four wins and leading by too many points. So you know for us to have a nice, smooth weekend with the pole and obviously going on to win the race was good for the #9 car side, and hopefully we can carry on a bit of a trend and try to get back into the points chase, even though it's a long ways away."
As he celebrated in victory lane with his wife, family and team - including Franchitti, who seemed genuinely happy for his long-time friend and team mate - it was Will Power sitting disconsolately in the Penske pit area that was hard to miss. When it's your season, it's your season. And when it's not, it's a long haul and nothing goes right, and everything starts getting to you. And the look on Will Power's face spoke eloquently on which side he felt his 2011 season was on in that divide, as he falls 62pts off the back of Franchitti for the title with just six races remaining in the year.
Full race results and positions