Halfway into the race there was no doubt about it. There really was was only one man in it on Saturday night, as Penske's Helio Castroneves came alive under the floodlights of the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway and dazzled his opposition into submission.
The Brazilian took the lead from Marco Andretti on lap 97 and then held it for the rest of the 228-lap race, finally crossing the finish line almost five seconds clear of the next-fastest man, reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay.
"It's been great," said Castroneves, thanking his team for putting together a package that was unbeatable in a race dominated by tyre management. "We were not only able to manage our tires and manage our fuel, but it was the setup. We did our homework and thank god it paid off. Texas is awesome. I love this place."
And his record at Texas bears that out: he's won here four times now in 12 starts, his first visit to victory lane at TMS coming in 2004. It was the 28th IndyCar win for Castroneves, and his first on an oval since 2010 at Twin Ring Motegi. The win puts him into the sole lead of the IndyCar championship by 18 points over Marco Andretti, and marks the first time this year that Penske have won a race in a season that has seen seven different winners from eight races so far in 2013.
"Helio drove a flawless race," said team owner Roger Penske, who hailed this weekend's race as "a key victory in our season based on where we were in the standings.
"It probably was the best execution we've had in a long time," Penske admitted. "Helio now leads the points and that's critical as we are in this stretch of oval races. It will be a slugfest, but I like our position right now!"
It has been a different Penske driver, Will Power, who had led the field to the green flag after winning an emphatic pole position the previous day. He couldn't convert that to a race lead, however, and through turn turn 2 it as second-place man Marco Andretti who led to the lead and then kept it for the first 53 laps of the event.
Power only led for four laps all evening, and that was under a caution for Scott Dixon whose #9 Ganassi car rolled to a halt on lap 54 while Marco Andretti was on pit lane for fuel and tyres for the first time.
"I think it was one of the main shafts from the gears that seemed to break coming out of the pits on that last stop for us. We found the problem and tried to fix it," sighed Dixon. "The car was good though. We were maintaining good pace and I think by the time of the end of the race came along we would have been in a good position to contend."
Dixon ended up being one of only two retirements in Texas on Saturday, the first having been Pippa Mann who got only three laps in before a problem with her new Dale Coyne Racing car sent spray onto the track in what appeared to be a Honda engine failure, duly triggering the first yellow of the night.
“I feel bad that we couldn't have had a better showing for the #18 Cyclops Gears Honda tonight," sighed the British driver as she resigned herself to watching the rest of the race from the pit wall.
When the green flag came out it was Andretti's team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay who was at the head of the field, and he duly led the field at the restart, the first time he had been out in front at Texas.
Hunter-Reay was able to stay out ahead of Marco until he came in for his second pit top of the night on lap 94, but as the leaders encountered heavy traffic it was Castroneves who took advantage and passed Hunter-Reay a couple of laps later to take control of the race.
"It was hard to even get by some of that traffic," admitted Hunter-Reay. "I was searching everywhere for grip; I had so many catches out there that I thought were on the wall. It's going to be tough to go to sleep tonight."
With a third and what proved to be final yellow on lap 113 for Panther's Oriol Servia spinning in turn 2, everyone was able to pit and after that it was a question of who was able to run a tyre conservation strategy most effectively for the second half of the race.
Despite his spin, Servia didn't hit anything and was able to resume the race albeit a lap down: "We put too much wing in, and at the end of the tires we probably should have come in two or three laps before that because we were already very loose," he explained. "Then on one of the bumps the rear just went, which was unfortunate.
"Luckily we saved the car, but the truth is the race was still not lost, because sometimes you can get your laps back at a place like this, but with no more yellows we couldn't make any miracles happen," he added.
Once the race was back underway, virtually everyone found a significant performance drop-off the longer a stint wore on - but Castroneves proved the exception to the rule and was able to maintain a remarkably consistent pace throughout. It was that consistency that put him head and shoulders above the rest of the field and literally untouchable for the rest of the night.
The rest of the field, including his team mate and polesitter Will Power, could only watch on and marvel.
"A great day for the team with Helio taking the win. He was just on another planet," admitted Power, who finished a lap down from Castroneves in seventh place by the finish of the race. "I thought we had a car that was good enough to win but unfortunately the car went loose on the last stint to cost us quite a few positions. All in all, it was a productive day with the top-ten finish."
Including Castroneves, only five cars were still on the lead lap when the chequered flag come out after nearly two hours of hard and fast running for the 22 drivers still in the running. Hunter-Reay held on to second place, while the rejuvenated Indy 500 champion showed that his oval form was right back at its peak with a third place finish ahead of Ed Carpenter and Marco Andretti.
"That was just an interesting race," said Hunter-Reay afterwards. "We made the most of it, and we kind of lost it a little bit there when that yellow when came out. Our strategy was such that we needed that yellow not come out. You know we had a good shot at winning it today though."
Notably, all five cars on the lead lap at the finish were Chevrolet-powered. The Honda cars has looked a bit poorly at Indianapolis, rallied impressively at the Detroit double-header with an all-Honda podium in the second event, but now seemed to have slumped back when raw power came t the fore at Texas.
The highest placed Honda at the finish was Ganassi's Dario Franchitti, who is slowly rebuilding his season after a terrible start to 2013. He led home the cars a lap off the lead and said it had been a battle to get there, especially in the opening laps.
"We just had way too much understeer in the [#10] at the start of the race," he explained. "It was probably the most I've ever had on an oval and that cost us some positions.
"As the run went on the car kind of came to us and each stop the guys made some great changes to the car," he continued. "We got the car where it was good and, combined with the strategy, we got up to P6.
"The strategy was to run really long on the tires and at times it was pretty hard work," he added. "We just started too far off on the setup, but it was a lot better than last year's car."
Franchitti is now in tenth place in the championship, but given how unpredictable the season has been for everyone so far and with 11 of the 19 races of 2013 still to run it's all very tightly packed in the midfield with less than 50 points covering positions fourth through 15th.
But at the front, victory in Texas gives Castroneves some clean air between himself and Marco Andretti, with Ryan Hunter-Reay only five points off the back of his team mate as he seeks to retain his title.Full race results
and championship standings