Just a few days ago, no one knew who would be driving the #18 Dale Coyne Racing car at Detroit this weekend. When the name of Mike Conway was announced it was warmly greeted as a sensible decision, a chance to get a decent midfield result and some solid points from this weekend's double-header races. But no one quite expected the 29-year-old from Kent to show up and steal the show outright with a dominant, foot-perfect display of street course driving.
With pole winner Dario Franchitti dropping back to 11th place on the grid for the start of the race with an engine change penalty, it was EJ Viso on pole alongside Conway who led the field to the green flag at Belle Isle to start the first race of the Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans.
Conway immediately managed to steal the lead from Viso, and before the Venezuelan could respond the race was under an immediate caution for AJ Allmendinger getting into the back of Scott Dixon: despite the controversial 'wheel guards' on the new Dallara DW12 chassis, Allmendinger's car was thrown up over the rear of the #9 as the wheels made contact and fused. Allmendinger was out on the spot and Dixon luck to be merely among the walking wounded.
Conway kept the lead at the restart but Viso fell back with a lack of power, allowing Ryan Hunter-Reay up to second ahead of Alex Tagliani and Will Power making an early declaration of intent by jumping up five spots to fourth place in a single lap and Dario Franchitti following through into fifth place behind him.
Conway surrendered the lead to Hunter-Reay for his fist pit stop on lap 24, just before Tagliani went into the run-off at turn 3 which promoted Power and Franchitti a further position apiece. A yellow quickly followed when Takuma Sato also came to a stop out on the track having run out of fuel, which allowed Hunter-Reay to take the advantage, pit and come out ahead of Conway while retaining the lead at the green flag, with Power and Franchitti running behind them ahead of Helio Castroneves and Justin Wilson.
The caution dragged on with Tagliani once again tangling with the tyre barrier at turn 3 before the green came out on lap 31; Franchitti got the best restart and jumped Power for third while James Jakes ran on at turn 3 and lost track position. The next driver in trouble was Sebastian Saavedra who made contact with the wall in turn 5 after clashing with Marco Andretti. Saavedra wasn't happy with Andretti and expressed himself in the Will Power-patented double-bird manoeuvre particularly apposite for a double-header. At the same time, Franchitti hit one of the tyres marking a don't-cut apex which sent the tyre flying across the track, forcing a new full-course caution for a sizeable circular piece of 'debris'.
After a protracted yellow, racing resumed on lap 39 with Franchitti and Castroneves both losing out and falling back to sixth place as Power, Kanaan and Wilson all got passed them, with Franchitti's own team mate Scott Dixon pushing the Scot down a further spot to seventh place shortly afterwards. Up ahead, Mike Conway got the better of Hunter-Reay who was struggling on the short-lived red option tyres to retake the lead again and going some two seconds a lap slower than Conway on the black primes.
Conway came in for his final stop on lap 53 leaving him 17 laps to run on the reds, regaining the lead when his team mate Wilson pitted from the front on lap 56. Conway was helped in his endeavours by Hunter-Reay being held up behind Tristan Vautier, who was running in second prior to making his own final pit stop, which meant that Conway held an effective 18 second lead at the front to cushion his final stint on the reds.
The only danger for Conway was a late caution: a problem for James Hinchcliffe which saw a tyre lodged underneath the #27 threatened such an intervention but Hinchliffe made it back to pit lane without a caution being required. Even so, a single-lap loss of three seconds from his lead with five laps still remaining meant that the win was anything-but certain
Hunter-Reay had halved the gap to ten seconds with three laps go, with Hunter-Reay safely well ahead of Wilson, Dixon, Castroneves and Franchitti when Ryan Briscoe went into the tyre barriers at turn 6; everyone held their breath, but with the end of the race imminent it seemed that a full course caution now would likely freeze the field and end the race, so the incident was instead managed under a local waved yellow. If Hunter-Reay was going to win this thing, he'd have to do it on his own merits.
And by now, Hunter-Reay's own tyres were on the wane: the gap stabilised and the reigning series champion clearly decided that second was good enough today and that the name of the game was getting the #1 car home safely and reap the points.
And that's exactly how the first race of the Detroit double-header weekend finished, the British 'super-sub' basking in victory lane and hoping that starting from pole position for Sunday's race will give him a serious shot at making it clean sweep for Dale Coyne Racing.See full race results