There had been a sense going into the Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend that the drivers, teams and series as a hold had a sense of grim determination to put their heads down and get through it, and that no one was expecting anything more at the end of the day than just another entry in the record books.
They certainly weren't expecting a wild, unpredictable rollercoaster ride that confounded expectations and threw up a popular first-time oval winner in the form of Britain's Justin Wilson at the end of a gruelling 228-lap night time race that had the drivers clinging on to their steering wheels for two hours and the rest of us clinging on to the edge of our seats.
It started with the most famous words in motorsport under the setting Texas sun; but with racing legend AJ Foyt uttering them they were never going to be the cookie cutter version, and sure enough his command was "Boys and girls, start your engines."
Only 23 of the 25 cars on pit road complied: the KV Racing car of Rubens Barrichello and the HVM Racing car of Simona de Silvestro refused to come to life, and after a brief panic by their respective pit teams both vehicles were led away into the garage area, done for the day before ever getting going. It was a huge disappointment for Rubens, who had put a lot of effort into getting up to scratch in time for only his second oval race in his long career; but for Simona, it was probably the kinder end to her race day than the dreaded black flag that likely awaited her under-performing Lotus engine.
For everyone else, however, the game was on: polesitter Alex Tagliani initially looked comfortable ahead of a trio of Ganassi cars, but while Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal were soon looking smooth and comfortable after slotting into the racing groove, anything but the same could be said for Dario Franchitti. The #10 car looked intent on driving into the wall at the earliest opportunity and Franchitti was forced to make save after save, all the while falling further and further back.
Finally the Indy 500 champion realised that the problem wasn't going away - in fact it was getting worse - and opted to pit early on lap 20 at the exact moment that his team mates Dixon and Rahal were cruising past Tagliani for the lead - a tale of two races, indeed. The new tyres and set-up tweaks did little to help Franchitti, however, and even another trip to pit lane under caution for more radical changes did nothing to cure the Scot's ills for the night. Franchitti would be left trudging around the speedway for the rest of the night, well off the lead lap, just to carry out whatever point damage limitation he was able to before the chequered flag.
"That was a long, long night," he said afterwards. "My car was really bad to start with after thinking the car was really good last night. From about lap 15 on I crashed about three times and the guys brought me in to disconnect the rear bar. We lost some laps from that and them struggled without grip all night. We just fought as hard as we could for every single point after that."
The early caution that Franchitti had come in for a second time under was on lap 31 when Charlie Kimball spun and hit the SAFER barrier in turn 4, demolishing his left hand suspension but otherwise escaping fairly lightly.
"It's disappointing, the car was going to get better and better, especially in clean air," said Kimball. "I had really good pace but the #5 car of EJ Viso was all over the road in front of me. I had no idea what he was going to do for five laps in a row. I'd go low and then he'd chop me, and I'd take off toward the fence. Then I went on the high side that lap and coming off the corner he moved right up, I got a face full of dirty air and the thing snapped around."
Everyone took the chance to come in for service during the yellow, and the pit road was a busy and eventful place: Tony Kanaan's air jack failed, costing him a bunch of positions; Simon Pagenaud misjudged his entry into his box and ended up hitting the tyres laid out for him, netting him a drive-thru penalty and also delaying Justin Wilson in the pit stall ahead; and Will Power was also frustrated after his right rear wheel wasn't fitted properly and he had to make a second stop, meaning he dropped all the way back from third before the caution to 20th afterwards.
But that hadn't affected the control of the race by Dixon and Rahal who resumed as a Ganassi 1-2 ahead of James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti at the restart on lap 40. However, in a demonstration of how quickly the new DW12 car could fall out of the "sweet spot" on a track like Texas, Rahal found his handling rapidly deteriorating as the sun set and the night-time took over, and by lap 63 he was 4mph off Dixon's lap times and in danger of losing touch.
The second caution of the night came to his aid and allowed him to make a much-needed pit stop. The yellow was a consequence of Takuma Sato spinning on the backstretch, an odd place to lose the car so far beyond the exit of turn 2: "I don't know what happened in the end. I just lost it in turn 2 when the back end just suddenly slid," said the Japanese driver.
"It was really a shame because up until then we were running strong after starting at the back of the grid and moving up with good strategy," he added. "We had a good pit stop and a good restart and everything seemed to be okay. I was a little loose after the pit stop and I just suddenly lost the rear end."
There were also retirements shortly afterwards for Ryan Hunter-Reay and Oriol Servia, both with technical problems that dropped them well off the pace and forced them to park for the night.
"Injector problem, I don't know - just lost power. We slowly but surely were losing power," explained Hunter-Reay. "We had a really good start to the season going, really good in points. Now with three straight mechanical issues it's so unfortunate."
"We started to have a fuel pressure alarm on the wheel and every lap was just all of a sudden getting worse," said Servia for his part. "I was running full throttle and it just wouldn't carry any speed. We think we have an injector problem or something, which is rare, but it happened today."
For everyone else it was time to get back to racing on lap 72, and this seemed to be Justin Wilson's moment. Having been caught up in Pagenaud's pit stop mishap earlier in the race, the Englishman was really flying now and he was quickly up into the top six. Will Power also looked to be back in the game after his earlier double stop for a loose tyre, and was now back in the top ten and moving forward with a steely resolve.
At the front, the race still seemed like a lock for Scott Dixon. However, he'd lost his team mate wing man: Graham Rahal was still out of the optimal zone he'd enjoyed in the earlier laps and had been overtaken for second by James Hinchcliffe, the GoDaddy.com lime green car now sparkling under Texas Motor Speedway's dazzling floodlights.
A round of green flag pit stops started around lap 112 just shy of the midway point of the race, and Marco Andretti was one of the early takers. However there was a mishap with the refuelling and as he pulled out of the pit box, the back of the #26 was on fire. Literally. Marco hustled the car round a lap, pulled back in and jumped out of the car - only to find that that the fire had by now gone out and had fortunately been limited to a surface layer of fuel on the chassis that had done no significant damage. In fact the bigger problem was strapping Marco back into the cockpit, and by the time he was underway again he was several laps off the lead and out of contention.
Justin Wilson was the last man to come into pit road on lap 124: he'd been hoping that a yellow would have come out in the meantime while the others were effectively a lap down, which would have given him a nice buffer zone. But that wasn't to be, and in fact the caution came out just six laps too late on lap 130 for EJ Viso pulling down to the front stretch infield area at pit exit and coasting to a dead stop.
"We had a problem that cut all the power on the car which ended my race," he explained. "I am very proud of the work my crew had been doing week after week. Unfortunately, our results don't reflect how strong our performance has been in every race. We all know this a tough sport, so we have to just keep fighting and good times will come very soon."
With the previous pit stops still so recent in the memory, there was a mixed view of whether to come in again or not; Dixon took the opportunity but Hinchcliffe stayed out to assume the lead. Helio Castroneves was in but probably wished he hadn't bothered, when he ended up colliding with Josef Newgarden who had overshot the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing pit stall. The two of them locked together proved a headache for Tony Kanaan to manoeuvre around when he exited his own pit box.
Graham Rahal, JR Hildebrand and Alex Tagliani all stayed out and duly got the lap back they had mislaid during the previous pit stop sequence, but Simon Pagenaud lost that opportunity and wasn't able to jump ahead of Hinchcliffe at the restart to get his lap back the old fashioned way, either.
Dixon was also soon passed the lapped Frenchman in pursuit of Hinchcliffe, and on lap 141 the Kimi trumped the Canadian to resume the lead of the race, leaving Hinchcliffe fending off the advances of Penske duo Will Power and Ryan Briscoe who were moving into ominous position for a late-race strike on the top spot. In fact, the Mayor of Hinchtown was struggling with fading balance and would have to make an early pit stop for urgent tweaks once the car lost that sweet spot in the set-up.
It hadn't been quite the flag-to-flag domination for Dixon that he'd enjoyed six days ago at Belle Isle, but it was still looking pretty solid for Dixon after leading 133 of the 174 laps so far as the likely final round of pit stops arrived. Dixon's paced dropped and he moved to the low line as Power duly took the lead; and then the Ganassi snapped around and went for a kamikaze strike against the wall. Everyone blinked: no one had been expecting that, not for the safest pair of hands in IndyCar to lose it while in a commanding position.
"We just got loose," signed a disappointed Dixon afterwards. "We had been getting loose at the end of stints. For the last ten laps of that last stint I was just really fighting to hold on. That time there I kind of got into the middle of few people we were trying to lap and I was trying to get back up to Power there. I turned in and the rear just started to slide and I kind of dipped down onto the apron and shut around again. I feel bad for the guys. We had a really good car and I think we had a good chance to win here tonight."
That put the race under yellow for the next ten laps while everyone sorted out their final pit stops of the night. When the race resumed it looked like it was going to be a Penske civil war between Power and Briscoe to determine who would get to claim the chequered flag, but then Tony Kanaan came into the picture and made a play of his own. Power slammed the door shut with an instinctive block that cost Kanaan his front wing.
Upstairs in race control, Beaux Barfield was not impressed. Although the new race director has done much to loosen up the rules allowing drivers to defend their lines within reason, that didn't include blatant blocking on a speedway at speeds of over 200mph. It was far too dangerous, and Barfield had no hesitation in handing the race leader a drive-thru penalty for his actions.
"I had Briscoe on the outside and Tony took me by surprise," admitted Power. "I feel bad for him. I ruined his day because he had to come in and change the front wing, and we ruined our own day by getting the penalty."
It certainly cost him his shot of what had looked like a very real chance of a rare oval victory: "I do have to say, that's the best racing I've ever had on an oval. The car was moving around. And that's the sort of racing we need at places like this," he said. "Feel like we could have won the race."
That drive-thru handed the lead to Briscoe with the third Penske driver Castroneves alongside him in second. But Briscoe's time in front was short-lived, because by now Graham Rahal had resolved his mid-race handling issues and was back on it, breezing past both Penske cars to take the lead on lap 199. He was the last Ganassi man left standing (excepting Franchitti trudging around at the back of the field) and had to pick up Dixon's fallen standard and carry the team colours to the finish line.
Briscoe tried to stay with Rahal, but behind him it was clear that Castroneves had a problem as he lost places to Justin Wilson and James Hinchcliffe in rapid succession.
"Unfortunately we had a lot of vibration and lost a lot of rear wheel grip towards the end, we just couldn't hold the top three and finished seventh," he said afterwards. "It's upsetting because when you have a set up like that because it really gives you a great opportunity."
However, Castroneves was still walking away from Texas with a solid sense of satisfaction in the weekend's work. "We passed a lot of cars and were able to drive through the field," he said. "I will take seventh with a big smile on my face because I've crashed many times out there and so I'm happy we were able to finish in the top ten."
With a dozen laps remaining, Rahal was still in front and Briscoe trying to close the gap, but then he found himself overtaken by a charging Justin Wilson. Even so, it seemed that the Englishman could do nothing to charge down the race leader 2s down the road and would have to settle for second place.
Rahal's car had looked a handful earlier in this final run but had seemed to settle down again into a drivable groove. At least, right up to lap 225, three laps from the chequered flag, at which point Rahal's car decided it could no longer resist the attraction of smacking the wall out of the exit of turn 4.
"I just made a mistake," admitted Rahal. "I mean the car was pushing through the centre of 3 and 4 pretty well the last stint, and it would kind of grip up for me late in the corner and I kind of stayed with it because they told me Justin was coming. So I was trying to pick up the pace a little bit, and honestly it just never gripped up, and I didn't give myself enough of a margin for error."
"I saw him sliding more and more every lap," said the man with the best seat in the house of Rahal's accident, Justin Wilson. "I didn't think there was no chance, but when I saw him hit the wall, I thought "'Okay, now it's time to go.'"
Miraculously the car wasn't fatally damaged by the rough kiss and Rahal was able to gather up his wits and keep on running, but it was the opening Wilson needed to blast past and take the lead. The lanky Brit needed no further invitations and held the top spot until the chequered flag came out less than two minutes later.
"It's just fantastic," said Wilson, once he'd been given directions to victory lane - an unfamiliar location to him at an oval track. "I just can't believe we managed to pull this off. The car was fantastic. And on the long runs, it just got better and better. I saw people sliding around and knew I just had to hit my marks.
"It was four-wheel drifting all the way into turn 3 and all the way out of turn 4," he added. "You were having to hang on out there." And no one did it better than Wilson, to claim his first IndyCar win since Watkins Glen in 2009 and Dale Coyne Racing's second series victory, Wilson having previously driven them to victory lane at Detroit in 2008.
Ryan Briscoe was unable to capitalise on the wounded Ganassi car in time and had to settle for third place - but he wasn't unhappy about that.
"I had the lead, I just didn't have the car to bring it home and stay in front. It's disappointing but I had a huge moment out there at one point tonight and I'll take third," he said. "Man you just had to hang on. It was hard work. My car, the last two sets of tyres just went off really badly in the back, so I was battling a loose car, which is hard work. I'm glad the race is over!"
James Hinchcliffe held on to fourth place ahead of JR Hildebrand, who had survived a spectacular slide in the opening laps but after that had settled down to a strong run that just somehow lacked that final killer edge to make a play for the outright race win.
"Starting from 23rd or 24th or wherever we started, I'm definitely happy to come home with a top five," said the Californian. "The last few stints it was super loose, but we're able to keep the speed up enough to not lose a lot of laps or positions, and when the car was good we could just hammer on it and catch it all back up. We would have liked for the car to be a little more competitive at the end of the runs, but shoot man, we'll take it."
Simon Pagenaud recovered from his early drive-thru penalty and going a lap down to finish in sixth place ahead of Castroneves. For a sportscar road course specialist, the Frenchman had not only proved surprisingly adept at the oval challenge, he'd enjoyed it too - as physical as it had proved.
"Man, I enjoyed it actually - I didn't think I would that much," he admitted. "I love the high side when it works. It's cool. I was very comfortable in turn 1 ... Once I got the hang of it, I had a really, really good race car. It was blindingly fast. I kept adjusting all race long."
If it hadn't been for that early mistake in pit lane, Pagenaud fancied that a win hadn't been too far out of reach: "Unfortunately, I made a big mistake in the pits early, which cost us a lot," he said. "Otherwise, maybe, we could fight for the win. The car was that good. But, I'm catching on. I learned a lot tonight, I made some good passes. Hats off to the guys."
But the night truly belonged to the Brit firing off the handguns in victory lane. You couldn't miss him: not only was he sporting a massive great Stetson, he was also wearing the broadest grin in Texas on Saturday night - and deservedly so.Full race results