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Deciding to limit himself to oval races only in 2014 seems to be paying off for Ed Carpenter, who last month claimed pole position for the Indianapolis 500 and who now on Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway managed to overcome long time leader Will Power to claim victory in the Firestone 600.
"This is a big win for us," said the owner-driver after his third career victory in the Verizon IndyCar Series. "I've always liked this place and ran okay, just haven't had good luck here to be honest, so it was nice to finally break through tonight.
"The team gave me a great car," he added. "It's nice to be able to deliver, just really proud of the whole team and the effort and proud to be able to represent Fuzzy's and do a good job for them with how much they've supported us the past two‑and‑a‑half years. It's good for everyone involved."
Penske's Will Power had started from pole position alongside Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's Josef Newgarden, and Power duly led for the first 57 laps of the 1.455-mile high-banked oval as the sun set over Fort Worth and the floodlights gradually took over. That stint included an early caution on lap 5 that was triggered by Marco Andretti's car which caught fire and stopped in turn 4, bringing the Andretti Autosport #25's day to a disappointingly early end.
"I'm sad for the crew," sighed Marco, who had made up eight places in the opening laps before the blow-up. "I wanted nothing more than to deliver a win on their home turf. This one's frustrating and it's going to really hurt for the championship, too."
Unfortunately for the team that wasn't their only car to fail during the evening. Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay also suffered a mechanical issue just past the halfway point of the 248-lap race, while James Hinchcliffe was suffering from chronic debilitating set-up and tyre issues all night.
"It just lost power all of a sudden, then we had an oil pressure alarm," Hunter-Reay said of his terminal issues. "I tried to get down to the apron because I thought we were maybe spilling oil everywhere ... We were running seventh and still had a shot at it. It was a long night and we needed the points most of all, so really disappointed for the DHL team."
"It's shocking: right from the word go I was hanging on for dear life, I don't know what happened," added Hinchcliffe after finishing the race four laps down. "[The #27] was so good in final practice last night, and from the drop of the green, we were struggling. There were times when the car was so loose, we were, like I said, just hanging on. Rough day for the team all around."
No such problems for Power, however, who led for a race-high 145 laps during the night, including all but four of the first 100 laps after pulling clear of Newgarden at the green flag and surviving an early challenge from Tony Kanaan around the outside at the single-file restart following Marco's exit. By the time he came in for his first green flag pit stop on lap 56 Power had already started carving his way through the backmarkers and had over eight seconds in hand over Kanaan who had his Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon in third with Newgarden and Carpenter left duelling over fourth place.
Power's team mate Juan Pablo Montoya briefly held the lead during the first cycle of stops, the Colombian having taken on fuel when he pitted on lap 8 under the first caution for a problem with the right rear wheel on the #2 car. The deferred strategy meant that Montoya took the lead again during the next round of stops on lap 100, but this time once the pit stop sequence was completed Power found himself no longer out in front, his lead having evaporated in heavy traffic while in the meantime Ed Carpenter and Scott Dixon had stopped six laps earlier and made the most of their run in relatively clear air on fresh tyres.
However, before Power could do anything about the situation the track was under yellow on lap 121 after Justin Wilson found himself pinched low onto the apron causing him to spin out in turn 4, clipping Sebastien Bourdais on the way. Both cars ended their day in the outside SAFER barrier.
"I saw [Bourdais] got checked up at the previous corner and I knew my only way was on the inside," explained Wilson after being checked over by the in-field medical centre. "I got a good run, a lot of steam on Sebastian and as I was approaching he started to block but my run was so big, it was too much of a block too late. I popped inside but he kept coming until I was out of road and I ended up with two wheels on the apron on turn in and that is never going to work."
"All of a sudden I was looking inside just in turn 3 and Justin ended up in the turn and hit the banking and just spun out," added Bourdais, who was also cleared by the medical team. "Got me on the way. Honestly I don't know if it was a racing incident. I haven't seen anything so I don't know if it's a racing incident, my fault or his fault, but if it's my fault, I apologise."
Power ended up winning the race off pit road to lead Carpenter, Montoya and Dixon at the restart with everyone now back in sync in terms of pit stop strategies. Tony Kanaan's challenge took a hit when he lost time with a steering wheel change, while Carlos Munoz suffered an embarrassing but ultimately harmless spin coming into pit lane.
Power found it harder to pull away from the field this time, Carpenter managing to stay within around a second of the leader during the next stint though to green flag pit stops that were completed on lap 178. Carpenter immediately sensed that this latest new set of tyres was his best opportunity to take the fight to Power, and four laps later he closed up on the #12 which had been held up by lapped traffic and he promptly completed the pass by blasting around the outside of turns 3 and 4 to lead the next stint.
Carpenter was still in front when he and Power pitted on lap 213 for potentially the final time. Power was still very much in contention for the race win, but then disaster struck as he was handed a pit lane speeding penalty which forced him to serve a costly drive-thru. That handed Carpenter a hefty ten second lead over Kanaan and Montoya going into the final laps of the Firestone 600, while Power was dropped to sixth place and reduced to running on track just ahead of Carpenter, worryingly close to being put off the lead lap at any moment.
But the story of the night had one last wrinkle, with a caution on lap 242 with six laps to go when Takuma Sato's Honda engine went the same way as the one in Marco Andretti's car at the start of the race to bring out a late third and final caution. The leaders - Carpenter, Montoya, Kanaan and Dixon - unsurprisingly stayed off pit road, but at the back of the lead lap Pagenaud and Power both had little to lose by coming in and taking four new tyres for the final two-lap stint, given that they would not lose positions by doing so.
The track went green and Power put his foot down, quickly passing the two Ganassi cars and then finally getting his nose ahead of his team mate to beat Montoya to second at the line by just 0.0524s, while Pagenaud also made gains and crossed the line in fourth place. But as for the race win there was no time for anyone to reel in Ed Carpenter, and the #20 crossed the line half a second clear of his pursuers to claim the team's second win of 2014 after Mike Conway's victory in the car at Long Beach.
"I was a little worried about that last yellow" Carpenter admitted. "I knew guys were going to come in. We talked about what we would do in that situation and we were kind of undecided. But [Penske team manager] Tim [Cindric] and the boys made the right call. Awesome night. I have loved this race track for a long time and had a lot of bad luck here. I have really always wanted to win here, so super excited."
As for Power, he was still annoyed with collecting another penalty but relieved and delighted to have fought back to reclaim second place just in time for the chequered flag. "An awesome call at the end by the team to call for new tyres and obviously got back to at least where we were, one more lap and we probably would have had it," he said.
But significantly in terms of the championship standings, Power doesn't have to worry about Carpenter as a contender as the American is only competing on ovals this year. Power's chief rivals for the 2014 title are his own team mate Helio Castroneves - who had a rather disappointing night and finished in tenth place, a lap down - and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had suffered that costly mid-race retirement.
With both of those men not performing to their best on Saturday, Power's lead in the championship rises to 39 points going into the ninth and tenth rounds of the 18-race season, which will be the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader that takes place at the end of June after a welcome three-week break for the drivers.
Full race results
IndyCar championship standings