It would be wrong to say that no one saw Ed Carpenter having a chance of winning the Kentucky Indy 300: he's always been strong here, starting from pole position in 2010 and finishing as a runner-up to Helio Castroneves. The year before, he'd been runner-up to Ryan Briscoe. But it just seemed that Carpenter was fated to be the bridesmaid here and never the bride - until this time, thanks to the small matter of 0.0098s at the chequered flag.
Carpenter had qualified in fourth place for this year's race, and at the start he could see the polesitter Will Power take off out front to quickly build a formidable lead over Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe. Carpenter himself had to contend with a strong challenge from JR Hildebrand in the opening laps, only for both of them to succumb to a pass from Marco Andretti whose #26 Venom car was looking very strong.
Further back it was a quieter time for some of the big names like Dario Franchitti, starting from 11th and who was up to eighth place after passing his Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon in the first 25 laps. Dan Wheldon, who had started from the back row after failing tech inspection before qualifying on Saturday, was working his way through the pack but stalled when he got to the midfield, showing how hard his $5m prize challenge was likely to be in Las Vegas in a fortnight.
There was an early exit from the race for last year's winner Castroneves, who reported that there was a water leak in the #3 on lap 34. He came onto pit road, and sure enough the problem was terminal for the engine and it was time for Helio and his crew to pack up for the day.
"We were moving up to the front when we noticed a water issue," he explained afterwards. "We came into the pits and once the guys took a look, we just lost power. It's just one of those things. It rarely happens, but it seems everything is happening to us this season."
Otherwise, everyone was playing the game close to the chest by the time Wheldon and Andretti were the first to take to pit road for scheduled stops on lap 48, in the window for a three-stop race strategy. Franchitti was one of the later cars to pit once activity in pit lane had quietened down on lap 51 and benefited from the clear entry and exit with one of the best stops of the cycle.
That proved to be a very wise strategy, one that race leader Power would have been well advised to adopt. Instead he was in on lap 49 when the pits were at their busiest, and as he moved to pull into his pit box the Dreyer & Reinbold team working in the box just behind were busy ushering Ana Beatriz back out: she ran straight into Power's sidepod.
Initially it looked as though Beatriz had come off the worst from the contact, needing to be fitted with a new front wing. But then Penske Racing's Tim Cindric confirmed that Power's car had been holed in the sidepod, a massive open wound that was slowing the car by something in the region of 4mph which meant that even when he finally got back on track, he was falling away from the leaders.
All of that had left Dario Franchitti in the lead ahead of James Hinchcliffe, with Scott Dixon and Marco Andretti ahead of a fierce battle between Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay over fifth place. Power had dropped back to ninth place and struggled to maintain even that position.
When a caution came out on lap 80 for debris on the backstretch, Power must have breathed a big sigh of relief because it meant he could take the #12 back to pit road for emergency surgery. The Penske team's first attempt to duct tape it up was an abject failure, the tape tearing off even at safety car speeds and depositing itself as a new debris hazard before the race could even consider resuming. Several more visits to pit lane ensued for Power, carefully timed to at least keep him on the lead lap, but it was dawning on everyone that there was little anyone could do to improve the situation. Power's afternoon was all about damage limitation and scrabbling any points from the back that he could.
"Nothing we could do about that one," he said. "We lost 4mph with the hole in the side of the car. Guys had done such a good job with the car, we had the fastest car on the track, best car I've ever had on an oval. Handling was still there, just no speed."
Everyone had pitted for fuel even though it was too far outside the window for getting home with just one more stop, unless there were a lot of yellow flag laps along the way. At the restart on lap 92, Marco Andretti got the drop on Scott Dixon to take second place, and proceeded to attach himself to the rear of Franchitti's #10 for the next 45 laps. Marco's car was surely the faster, but the clear air and the low line that Dario controlled by virtue of having the lead made him impossible for Andretti to pass no matter how much sustained pressure Marco applied.
Pit stops were just starting on lap 138, beginning with Dan Wheldon, whose pace had fallen off with handling problems in the latter half of the afternoon. Simona de Silvestro was also on pit road, but when she pulled out of her pit box the cold tyres reacted badly and snapped her to the left, causing her to run sideways through the KV Racing Technology pit box of EJ Viso. The chief mechanic DJ McMahon was already in position for his man, and instead he was broadsided by the skidding #78 and sent flying. He was sent to the medical centre for check-ups which confirmed a fractured knee; a shaken de Silvestro soon retired from the race.
The commotion meant that pit lane needed to be closed to stop the accident involving anyone else thinking of coming in - and that meant throwing a full course caution. Once pit road was tidied up, the pits were opened again and everyone came in under the yellow. It was another perfect stop for the Ganassi duo of Franchitti and Dixon, but an even quicker stop for Rahal popped him up to second place between them.
But elsewhere on pit road there were two more serious incidents - one of which enveloped the car that seemed the biggest threat to the Ganassi team, Marco Andretti's #26. He had completed his stop and was trying to race Graham Rahal down to pit exit when they closed up fast on the rear of Alex Lloyd just pulling into the Dale Coyne pit box: Marco was caught out and ran straight into the back of Lloyd, scatting pit crew and ending both their races on the spot, while also trapping EJ Viso in his pit box right behind and costing him a huge time delay as a result.
JR Hildebrand's pit box was also not a great place to be during this caution, as he misjudged his entry and ran into the inside wall, trapping and knocking over several of his pit crew waiting to service him. One of them was clearly badly injured in the leg and in considerable pain, needing attention on the spot from the IndyCar medical team before being transferred to the in-field care centre and from there to the local hospital for treatment. That all this put Hildebrand off the lead lap was rather inconsequential by comparison.
At the restart on lap 145, Franchitti still had the advantage of the lead - but once again seemed to have the weaker car compared with the driver in second place, now Graham Rahal. Rahal knew he was pacier and wanted past the #10 but Franchitti was unwilling to cede the position even to another member of the extended Ganassi family. He grimly held on, but all the time he was being pressed by Rahal he was unable to save fuel - and without a major yellow there was no way Franchitti (or anyone, most likely) was going to make it through to lap 200.
Fortunately for the drivers, the extended yellow did finally come on lap 166 and lasted 12 laps, more than enough to allay fuel-conservation headaches. Unfortunately for Ana Beatriz, it was she who triggered it when she spun in turn 3 and planted the #24 car into a nasty rear-end impact against the out-side wall. Beatriz needed help walking to the medical car but did not require a stretcher or neck and back brace, which was a promising sign. The car was badly damaged however and there were fluids leaking all over the track, which is what necessitated the lengthy run behind the safety car.
There was bad news for Graham Rahal as well, as he was summoned to pit road. He was stunned by the call: how come he had been short-filled while everyone else seemingly had enough to make it to the end of the race? He fumed on the radio but had no choice but to pit, dropping him from the second spot to 13th for the restart on lap 177.
Franchitti got another good restart, but now found himself with a new challenger as Ed Carpenter - who had always been circulating in the top eight despite having problems with his helmet visor requiring him to drive one-handed at times - surged past Dixon to take second place, while Dixon found himself battling Ryan Hunter-Reay and unable to help Dario (or indeed help himself in his own fading championship title hopes.)
Carpenter knows Kentucky like few others, and he brought all his knowledge from those two previous second place runs to go side-by-side with Franchitti for the remaining 22 laps of the race. He couldn't pull off a pass, but significantly he could pull ahead down the straights even if he then dropped back slightly through the corners as Dario benefited from having the inside line. But crucially, the start/finish line was on the straight - and lap after lap it was clear that Carpenter was crossing the line first with increasing regularity.
That included the final lap: as they came out of turn 4 for the last time, Carpenter once again pulled ahead by a mere foot or two - 0.0098s at these speeds in excess of 200mph - and took the chequered flag in first place, in the sixth-closest finish in the history of the IZOD IndyCar Series.
"It felt way better than I ever thought it was going to feel," said Carpenter when asked what it felt like to take his first IndyCar win. "I knew we had the better car but in the second or third step ... The team made changes all day to the car. Just an awesome day."
His car owner Sarah Fisher - back at the race track for the first time since the birth of her first daughter Zoey just two and a half weeks ago - was equally emotional after the first win by her race team. "How does it feel? I'm still in shock ... My baby girl is obviously good luck!"
Fisher is a former IndyCar driver herself, and made history by being the first woman driver to win a pole position. As it happened, that landmark came at Kentucky Speedway all the way back in 2002: this place sure seems to like her and Carpenter.
Dario didn't like missing out on the win, but he knew he'd lost to a deserving driver. "I just tried to stay low there and keep going, and just ran out of overtakes one lap shy there and Ed got me. He drove a great race."
And Franchitti won't be too disappointed: with Power's early pit lane problems resulting in a 19th place finish, Franchitti turns the 12pt deficit he came into the race with into a 18pt lead in the championship with just the final round in Las Vegas remaining to decide the title.
Scott Dixon's third place means that he's now officially too far back to be in with a chance of winning the title this year - always an outside chance at best. But he does pick up the AJ Foyt Oval Trophy as the winner of the "mini-series' comprised of the oval events through 2010 (Will Power picked up the corresponding Mario Andretti Road Course Trophy last month.)
"All in all, going to take the positives, and obviously winning the AJ Foyt Oval Championship was definitely a nice end to the season," he said. "Great day for the team, huge points swing in the championship for Dario which is much need and is going to make it exciting going into Vegas."
And in fourth place, James Hinchcliffe's run puts him into the lead of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award, just ahead of JR Hildebrand - but like the two remaining championship contenders, the rookies have it all to play for going into Vegas as well.
"Certainly it's nice to go into the last race of the year a little bit up [in points] but at the end of the day there is still a lot that can happen," said Hinchcliffe. "As you can see JR was ahead of us on track at one point during the day and so many things can happen to throw you off. It just proves how tough these races are; its really about being there at the end. We'll take it!"
Vegas will have another attraction in the form of Dan Wheldon's attempt to run from the back to win the race and claim a $5m prize to share with a fan. Wheldon could only manage 14th at Kentucky from the same back row start.
"It was eventful," said Wheldon. "It kept me busy, but that happens when you start from the back. By the same token we were able to move forward in the Bowers & Wilkins at Magnolia car, we just didn't seem to quite have the speed and the balance necessary to get right to the front ... That's experience that is invaluable."Full race results