29 May 2011
Indy 500: Wheldon takes second title as JR crashes
Was this a sign that Penske were suddenly starting to show some form at long last? As it happened - no, it was more a sign that Dario was suddenly far less comfortable during this part of the race, the set-up just no longer to his liking as the afternoon warmed up and broke into the 90s Fahrenheit. Servia sensed the weakness and passed Dario for the lead on lap 114, promptly going on to put Helio a lap down again after all.
Dario seemed to adapt and on lap 132 he was strong enough again to retake the lead, but pit stops were looming and he was mightily pleased to get in and have a whole raft of adjustments dialled in to to the car for the final third of the race. This time for once, the pit stops cycled through without a caution interrupting proceedings.
Instead, one came on lap 148 - and sadly it was for the exit from the race of the well-liked polesitter Alex Tagliani, who slid the Sam Schmidt Motorsports #77 onto the marbles and into the wall at turn 4 while dealing with JR Hildebrand. Tag had been dropping down the running order since the midpoint of the race and had already looked a spent force as far as the race win went.
"We had a really good, balanced car early on. It was nice to drive it," he said. "Then all of the sudden, it became very loose. I couldn't really get it back on track ... In one of our pit stops, we thought we fixed it, but we didn't. It's a shame, because early on the car was so good I thought we had a shot at it all race long. But we kind of lost the car at some point; very curious."
With only 50 laps to go now, fuel strategies were starting to come into focus. Most of the cars stayed out of pit lane, but Marco Andretti and Townsend Bell opted to come in, dropping them to 10th and 11th respectively; that left the leading top six lined up in the order Franchitti, Dixon, Servia, Wheldon, Kanaan and Hildebrand, with Danica Patrick running in seventh.
Dario didn't even bother pretending to abide by a double file restart when things got underway again, and just shot off into the lead as fast as he could. But it proved to be a short-lived green flag, with another caution coming on lap 158 when Townsend Bell - who had been unusually inconsiderate of other cars on the track during the day and lucky to escape without any collisions so far - finally rode to the end of his luck.
He pinched down on the #6 of Penske's Ryan Briscoe into turn 1, and Briscoe had no where to go except into the #99. Bell was sent up into the wall and Briscoe followed, the Schmidt Racing car making an unwilling crumple zone for Briscoe's own impact.
"I've got to see the replay, but it seems like somebody hit me in my left rear, I think it was Ryan," said Bell. "I saved it in turn 1 and whammo, it got me again and pinned me in the wall."
Briscoe denied it was his fault, but was forgiving toward Bell at the same time: "I saw Townsend brush the wall in turn 4. Everyone was going down the inside. I was just following through on the inside into turn 1," he explained. "I just think he didn't know I was there, and he just came down and pinched me. As soon as we made contact, the wheels interlocked. And that was it."
Pit stops followed, but with 40 laps still to go it was too far to make it on a single final tank of gas - everyone would have to pit again. Except that on the very last lap of the caution period, two cars decided to dive into the pits and get a late extra top-up of fuel in a bid to make it all the way to the flag after all, now it was just 36 laps away.
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