If anyone was in any doubt that Andretti Autosport's strong form at the Milwaukee Mile last weekend had been genuine, then their reprise performance at the Iowa Speedway will have put paid to such thoughts. For the second time in a week, the team claimed two of the three podium positions at the end of a fierce night of racing; and for the second time, it was Ryan Hunter-Reay who walked away with the race win.
It was also the second time in a week that the drivers had to wait for the weather to clear up before they could get underway. A line of thunderstorms had provided an unexpected extra light show for fans, but at the cost of pushing back the start-time - already an unusually late 9pm local time, 3am on Sunday morning in the UK - by a further 40 minutes by the time that the jet dryers had done their work on the 0.875-mile oval.
Just as the drivers were getting ready to go green, Alex Tagliani's car stalled and pulled down to the infield apron at turn 3 with a problem, meaning that the race started under yellow while track workers attended to the stricken #98. The car was refired, and - while already two laps off the lead - Tagliani dutifully set to work to move back up through the field as quickly as he could.
But during this delay, a much bigger problem had struck the polesitter, Dario Franchitti: with almost no warning, the Honda engine in the #10 had sent out a huge plume of smoke and the car had died on the spot. "It was making a very strange noise," said Franchitti as he stood in pit lane watching the green flag come out at last. "I'd actually just come on the radio to say 'Is this thing making an odd noise?' and then it let go. Really disappointed.
"One of those things," he added. "We'll move on, but I'll tell you I think it's going to be a hell of a race."
Franchitti's early exit left Helio Castroneves at the head of the field when the green flag finally came out, the race already scored as having reached lap 10. Castroneves led his team mate Ryan Briscoe and Andretti Autosport's Marco Andretti to the line, while behind them Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's new young star Josef Newgarden got a great initial start and passed James Hinchcliffe, only for the #67's handling to quickly wane leaving him passed not only by Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay but also by Panther's JR Hildebrand
Hildebrand then misjudged a move on Hunter-Reay and clipped an element of his front wing on the rear wheel guard of the #28, forcing him into pit lane for a new component: "We kind of washed up into his wake and when you're that close the car doesn't really turn as much as you think it is," he explained. "I missed that by probably a matter of inches, but that obviously put us a few laps down."
Hinchcliffe was looking stronger and stronger as the drivers settled down and the track started to regain some of the grip that it had previously had before the rain storms passed through, and he took over second place from Briscoe on lap 33. Then - after initially being stymied by slower lapped traffic - he moved past Castroneves and into the lead on lap 52.
Also looking strong at this early stage were the KV Racing cars of Tony Kanaan and EJ Viso. Unfortunately, Viso's evening would prove to be much shorter than he was hoping for: on lap 68 he was running the low line on the inside of Will Power competing for eighth place, when Power started to move down the track and squeezed him right down to the line until contact was made. Power spun out, and pancaked Viso against the SAFER barrier in turn 2.
Viso was furious: "This is not the usual Will that we used to know by being clean, this is the second race that he affects somebody on my team and it's very disappointing," he fumed. "He just doesn't use his mirror. I had a run at him, I was into corner one and he just blocked me, blocked me, and I couldn't get lower, I already had my front left tyre inside the apron and the yellow line. He just kept going lower and I had nowhere to go."
Power had an unlikely ally rush to his defence against Viso's comments. "A little rich coming from EJ, he's hit everything but the pace car!" said Dario Franchitti while visiting the TV commentary booth. "That annoyed me there. Will made a mistake for sure, but EJ - how many mistakes has he made?"
In fact Power was unaware of what had happened and thought he had spun out all by himself and simply caught Viso on the way to the wall. When viewing the video replay for the first time, he was shocked to discover that Viso had been on the inside line all along.
"He said to me in the car that I was down low on him or something and I didn't understand," said Power. "But, oh yeah, now I see. I didn't get the call that he was underneath me, so I feel, man - I didn't even know he was there, I feel bad for him."
The caution gave everyone the chance to come onto pit lane for their first round of pit stops of the night, but it didn't go well for Oriol Servia who departed his pit stall with the rear left quarter of the #22 ablaze from spilt fuel catching light on the heat of the engine cover. Servia continued on for a time, but it was clear that the fire had melted some key fuel seals and electrical components of the car and he was soon forced to retire.
The restart was waved off for a few minutes because of reports of rain in the air, and also to sort out a puzzling situation in which James Jakes was now listed as race leader: race control determined that he'd achieved this by illegally passing the pace car and sentenced him to a 40-second stop-and-hold penalty on pit lane.
All of that put Castroneves back in charge of the restart when it finally went ahead on lap 85, but just a few minutes later the yellow flags were back out again this time for JR Hildebrand, who had understeered off onto the marbles in turn 4 on lap 99 and into the wall while working hard to overcome his earlier front wing damage.
"That was just a mistake on my part," he admitted. "I had every bit of faith that with a couple of yellows we were going to get back on the lead lap and motor up the field, the car was really that good."
Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe were the only takers among the leaders for fuel and tyres, with Briscoe even ducking back into pit lane for an additional fuel top-up just before the green flag came out again on lap 111. Clearly both men had a fuel conservation run in mind to potentially complete the second half of the race with only one further pit stop, or at least to pick up valuable track position if a caution were to come out at an opportune moment.
At the restart itself, Hinchcliffe manage to muscle past Andretti on the high line for second place, while Tony Kanaan tried to go wheel-to-wheel for fourth underneath Ryan Hunter-Reay but wasn't able to make it stick and had to back out twice. Hunter-Reay bounced back from that to charge past his team mates for second place behind Castroneves, leaving Marco altogether less than thrilled by the hardball driving antics of his alleged team mates as no favours were asked for or given between the Andretti Autosport trio.
Perhaps the most eye-catching performance of the evening to this point however was that of Simon Pagenaud, who had started from dead last but after the restart he was soon passing Rubens Barrichello, Josef Newgarden, Justin Wilson and finally Tony Kanaan for fifth place in quick succession with the calm assurance of a seasoned pro, rather than someone on only his fourth oval track outing.
A round of green flag pit stops ensued around lap 155, with the exception of Dixon and Briscoe who had opted to go off-sync under the previous caution. Even so, Dixon was forced to come onto pit lane for fuel on lap 176, handing over the lead of the race to Briscoe in the process.
Before Briscoe could come in for his own stop, there was the opportune yellow that the Penske team had been hoping for: unfortunately, Briscoe himself was the cause of the yellow when he was tipped into a spin by Josef Newgarden. Briscoe had been slow on his now-worn tyres while Newgarden was much faster albeit a lap down on fresh rubber, and the rookie simply miscalculated the closing rate on the race leader, sending them both spinning up into the wall at turn 2.
"He was coming out on tyres with stickers about two seconds a lap quicker, and we were going down the straight," he said. "I went low early in the straight to show him that I was giving him the high line and when we got there he just never lifted and just came barreling in.
"It's disappointing, my spotter didn't have time to tell me that that's where he was going, I don't think anyone saw that coming," he added. "He's coming from way too far back there, it's too late in the corner to make a pass like that. So it's disappointing, but he's a rookie and he'll learn from it. It's a shame because I think on fuel we were in position to win the thing."
Newgarden admitted that he had been caught out by Briscoe changing to the lower line in preparation for a pit stop. "Briscoe was working that top lane like he wanted to be up in the middle of the top, and that was fine," he said. "I went low on the entry and then he kinda slowed down and started coming low as well.
"I actually tried to get out of it because he started coming low and I mean I couldn't even get out of it in time. I tried to go below the yellow to avoid it and even brake, there was just not enough there really. Really caught me off guard too, I was not trying to do anything silly or rushed," he insisted.
The one driver in a position to benefit from the fourth caution of the night was Scott Dixon, who had just pitted and was able to stay out and reassume the lead while everyone else pitted. Andretti, Castroneves, Hunter-Reay, Kanaan and Hinchcliffe made up the rest of the top six, with Pagenaud still impressively holding on to seventh place.
Andretti Autosport was looking in a stgong position to challenge for a 1-2-3 podium lockout, but those hopes went up in carbon fibre shards a lap after the green came out, when James Hinchcliffe's GoDaddy.com car got loose in traffic on cold tyres and twisted round into contact with the wall at turn 4.
"We've been understeering all night, which is sort of the weird thing," he said about the crash. "Snapped once, snapped twice almost got it and then it went around. I feel bad for the GoDaddy guys, obviously the cars are running really well and I thought we had a good shot at winning this thing, and I just feel bad for the guys on the team."
The next restart attempt was on lap 204, with Dixon still leading the same usual suspects to the green flag. This time there were no hitches, and even though Alex Tagliani once again slowed and pulled to the infield with a sick car for the second time of the night he did so without triggering another caution.
Dixon had the lead, but he also had to watch his fuel - and was also on the oldest set of tyres of anyone in the field. At first that didn't seem to present any problems to the Ganassi driver, who was able to maintain the lead while Hunter-Reay finally took care of his team mate Marco for second place and Castroneves dropped back complaining of a vibration; but as the end of the race approached and traffic became an increasing problem, Dixon was clearly beginning to struggle for pace.
"Toward the end I could only go to the bottom and when I got high it just had too much under steer," he explained. "We gave it the best we could and got stuck behind two slower Honda cars at the end who we had trouble getting around. I was a bit confused over that," he admitted.
Hunter-Reay finally blew past Dixon with 12 laps to go, and the loss of momentum for the Ganassi meant that Marco went past just seconds later. Dixon would also fall foul of Tony Kanaan, but was saved from being passed by Simon Pagenaud for fourth place by a Katherine Legge spinning out at turn 2 and hitting the wall, bringing out the sixth and final caution of the day and meaning the race ended under caution.
Before the caution closed everyone up, Hunter-Reay had pulled out a 1.2223s lead over Marco. He was thrilled with his back-to-back win: "We're just so happy to be in Victory Lane twice in a row," he said. "I said last weekend when we won Milwaukee - I want to do it more often!"
Hunter-Reay revealed he had to give a lot of the credit to his team mate, the 2011 Iowa race winner who finished in second place: "I have to thank Marco," he revealed. "They came here and tested. Marco put the set up on the car. When we came here, we tweaked it just a little. From there, we basically raced with what he tested with."
"Great team effort, definitely a statement from Andretti Autosport and congrats to Ryan," said Marco in response, adding that he couldn't help but be a little disappointed on a personal front. "It was a lot of fun, the car came alive in the second stint. I think we in hindsight could have taken another turn of the front wing and been really hard to beat at the end, but we kept the car how it is and I kind of ran out of tools at the end and had a lot of understeer."
Tony Kanaan was delighted with third place, although ruing missing out on a chance for the win because of the ten place grid penalty he'd been handed for an engine change.
"It was a great day for us, I wished we had started further up the field," he said. "We don't take the podium finish for granted, but I think we had a car that could have won the race.
"Hopefully we can get a win soon," he added. "We have to capitalize on what we have done so far, the championship is getting tight ... I hope the fans liked the race!"
But if there was a driver of the day, it surely had to be Simon Pagenaud who had delivered a superb performance to climb from the back of the grid to fifth place at the end.
"I've never started last before!" the French sportscars star admitted. "When I saw everyone in front of me at the start, I couldn't believe I was back there.
"My thought process starting the race was 'just to move forward,'" he explained. "It was really difficult at the beginning, we were already a lap down before I got confident with the car. Something just clicked, and everything unlocked and we started moving forward. I'm really starting to enjoy the ovals. It's close racing and it's fun."
Another IZOD IndyCar Series rookie on the ovals, Rubens Barrichello, echoed that appreciation after finishing just behind Helio Castroneves: "I must say I am happy with this seventh place finish.
"I started the race on a completely different set up and for two stints my car was pretty loose," he went on. "We managed not to lose a lap and once the car got better after the changes we made in the first two pit stops then I was able to race. It's still such a different experience on this ovals but like I said I am pleased with the result."
Certainly as far as the race went, it was a day for unexpected stars to shine and for Andretti Autosport to burn brightest of all, Hinchcliffe's momentary mishap aside. But it was a day that several of the bigger names in the championship - Will Power, Ryan Briscoe and Dario Franchitti chief among them - will be keen to move on from, as the series looks ahead to its next engagement in two weeks time in Toronto.Full race results