16 April 2012
Power drives home the points in Long Beach
Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves had stayed out during the cautions to inherit the race lead, and - like Franchitti - were grimly sticking to the two-stop strategy no matter what. All three finally came in on lap 34 but were now stuck with green flag pit stops while everyone else had taken 'free' (or at least heavily discounted) stops under cautions. Castroneves came back out in 14th and Briscoe right behind, and neither car was able to make much headway for the remainder of the race. The gambit had failed.
"We just were stuck in traffic all day long," signed Briscoe. "It's a real shame because I think we had the quickest car out there and we just couldn't do anything with it. We had a bad pit stop, the first one, and that put us way behind and from there we couldn't go anywhere. It was just a really frustrating day."
That left Simon Pagenaud in charge of the race, with KV Racing's Tony Kanaan popping up into second spot after the wily old racer had sneaked in an early pit stop under green on lap 11 to put himself off-strategy from the others. He did have to come in for his next pit stop on lap 41, however, and that meant Pagenaud was left leading Wilson, Sato and Power: the question now was whether any of them could get all the way home on just one more tank of fuel.
Certainly not Pagenaud, and he had no intention of even trying - not for him the soul-destroying tactic of crawling round on fuel conservation laps. Wilson followed his lead, but Power decided he was going to give it a try even though he looked a lap short of fuel to make it to the end. All three had pitted together at the start of the lap 20 caution for Bourdais' incident, but Sato was in a slightly better position having ducked into pit lane on lap 28 at the last minute under the subsequent Andretti/Rahal caution, and that gave him far more flexibility to make it to the end on just that one stop.
From there on, it became a tense stand-off of nerve and the ability to drive to the numbers. In such situations there is no one better in the cockpit than Will Power, and gradually he inched up the running order as others pealed off to pit lane. He didn't get into the lead until lap 71, but that was fine for the Aussie. There was no rush, no panic - he simply waited and let the race come to him with the inevitability of a falling apple complying with gravity.
But there was still one big threat to Power's victory: when Simon Pagenaud pitted for the third and last time, he came back out on track in fourth place behind Power, Sato and KV Racing's Rubens Barrichello - who had struggled early on but who seemed to take a quantum leap in performance every with every five laps more track knowledge he gained.
Pagenaud was clearly still in touch and had 15 laps and all the fuel he could liberally burn to get past Sato and Barrichello and then hunt down Power for the lead. He proceded to cut over a second per lap out of Power's time for the rest of the race, and that put him close to catching the #12 as the white flag came out. Power's strategic Tim Cindric and engineer Dave Faustino had to give Power the nod to do whatever he had to to stay in front, and he put his foot down to make it to the chequered flag and simply had to hope that the gas wouldn't run dry before he got there.
"They told me [Pagenaud] was coming," said Power. "I had a four-second gap and just needed to save as much [gas] as I could and then I ran hard at the end, the last lap or two, and it was enough."
"One more lap, man, I would have tried I tell you," said Pagenaud. "It was fantastic. The car was great from the beginning ... We're a one-car team operation, we don't have as much data as Penske or Ganassi, but I'm glad we're giving them a good run for their money."
While the race winner was decided in a thrilling but orderly fashion, all hell was breaking loose elsewhere on track in the final two laps. Takuma Sato's impressive run to third place ended abruptly on the penultimate lap when he was spun into the wall by a late lunge down the inside from Ryan Hunter-Reay; and on the final lap, Helio Castroneves nerfed Rubens Barrichello through the final hairpin, spinning the Brazilian out of what what had been set to be a strong eighth place finish.
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