By Andrew Charman
Dario Franchitti tried to play the fuel gamble trick in the SunTrust Indy 300 at Richmond, but ended his night spinning down the field. Dan Wheldon started in third to last spot and at one point went a lap down, but his decision to gamble paid off with a race win and a return to the top of the points table.
Richmond may be only three-quarters of a mile round but it's also built for speed, and with 170mph laps the norm in qualifying the SunTrust Indy 300 was expected to be fast and furious. Helio Castroneves had brightened a hitherto mediocre season for Marlboro Team Penske by taking pole in his #3 Dallara-Toyota, and he duly led away, the #15 Rahal G-Force Honda fellow front-row sitter Buddy Rice slotting into second and British rookie Mark Taylor trying desperately to hold on to his best-ever third start spot but his #2 Panther Dallara-Chevrolet soon slipping behind Sam Hornish Jnr in the second Penske car.
Several yellows were expected, and the first flew after just 11 laps as Alex Barron banged wheels with Kosuke Matsuura and hit the wall, deranging the right side of his Red Bull Cheever Dallara-Chevrolet. They were underway again after 22 laps, Castroneves still ahead of Rice and Hornish, with the #11 Andretti-Green Dallara-Honda of last round winner Tony Kanaan and Tomas Scheckter's #4 Panther Dallara-Chevrolet fighting over fourth as Taylor slipped back. Soon the Penske cars were one-two and Hornish seriously challenging his team-mate. On lap 38 he squeezed past, quickly building a gap on Castroneves.
The race now settled into a pattern, Hornish leading, Castroneves content to run second and the now third-placed Schecker using ever higher grooves in a bid to close down the leaders. On lap 62 the trio lapped Dan Wheldon's #26 Andretti-Green Dallara-Honda, the championship second-place sitter struggling back in 12th. But on lap 70 the progress was stalled by the slightest of taps between Bryan Herta and Darren Manning dumping some debris on the track and sparking another yellow, encouraging everyone to pit for fuel and tyres. Hornish won the race out of the pits, but only by a nose from Castroneves.
The green flew on lap 61 and the lead three resumed their positions, Rice nipping round Kanaan for fourth. By now only nine drivers were on the lead lap of what was fast becoming a Penske demonstration. But trouble flared again on lap 105, the leaders briefly running four-wide while lapping a couple of backmarkers and causing another debris caution. Again everyone pitted, but this time Hornish was slow, Castroneves winning the race out and slick work by the Panther crew seeing Scheckter split the two Penskes. Yet out in front were Dario Franchitti and Ed Carpenter, the two having gambled on not pitting as race control reported rain drops on the circuit.
It took some time to decide that the precipitation would not become significant and the green finally flew on lap 130, Franchitti's #27 Andretti-Green Dallara-Honda leading away. But almost immediately the yellow was out again – Darren Manning had been carving through the field all night in increasingly brave fashion, his Target Chip Ganassi #10 G-Force-Honda tapping at least two rivals, and on lap 130 his luck ran out with a trip to the wall. He drove the stricken car back to the pits, but no further.
The fifth green of the evening flew on lap 135, Franchitti still leading but now Castroneves in second, Carpenter having pitted. Scheckter and Hornish briefly battled for fourth until Tomas realised he couldn't hold the Penske back, Sam going past and quickly opening a gap until on lap 175 he briefly got sideways, both Scheckter and Kanaan making the most of his mistake to go past.
Hornish's Penske was now the fastest car on the track, and soon regained both his lost places only to go wide again and be forced to do the job again. Scheckter battled back, the pair touched and Hornish spun between following cars without actually hitting the wall, but stalling and losing four laps. The resultant yellow was a massive break for Franchitti, who had been planning to pit 10 laps later – now he came in at the head of a queue and emerged still ahead, but not in the lead as this time Wheldon, Rice and Vitor Meira's #17 Rahal-Letterman G-Force Honda gambled on not pitting.
At the restart on lap 202 Castroneves reacted best, using a lapped car to round both Franchitti and Rice and set off after the lead pair, both of whom were expected to need one more pit stop. But lap 217 bought caution number six and a big blow for the British fans as Franchitti and Taylor touched, the Scott spinning and Taylor slamming the wall. In the confusion Scheckter smacked into Adrian Fernandez and headed for the pits with bent front suspension and no record for a strong showing.
Just 17 laps remained as the green flew, Wheldon and Meira still out front and Castroneves delayed by a scrap with Rice. But as they reached six to go the Penske had caught Meira, only for three cars further back to touch, Greg Ray losing part of his front wing and sparking a debris caution. All of which set up the drama of a last lap sprint, but while Castroneves rounded Meira the moment the green flew, he had nothing for Wheldon who duly won his second race of the year and regained the championship lead, having started the night in third to last spot with surely little hope of a meaningful result. Castroneves' second place did no harm to his championship aspirations, while Meira's third place finish strengthened his growing reputation.
“I knew if I stayed very calm I could do it on the final restart” grinned Wheldon in victory lane. He now leads the series to its next appointment, in Kansas in just eight days time. The first British Stateside champ since Mansell in '93? It's not out of the question…