CLICK: Full race results from Iowa Speedway
Tony Kanaan led for 247 laps of the Iowa Corn Indy 300 under the floodlights at Iowa Speedway on Saturday night; Ryan Hunter-Reay by contrast led just two. It's just that they happened to be the final two laps of the race and one of them came with the all-important chequered flag attached, and that meant it was Hunter-Reay who walked away with his third victory of 2014 instead of Kanaan, who was left still searching for his first of the season.
Because of the threat of rain in the area, the start of the race had been pulled forward by nearly half an hour. The opening lap demonstrated that there were no team orders between the Ganassi contenders as pole sitter Scott Dixon and his team mate Kanaan went wheel-to-wheel in a fierce battle for control of the race, and it was Kanaan on the high side that finally clinched the move and took the position.
Once bumped from the lead, Dixon appeared to be struggling for speed and was quickly passed by Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe. Also looking off the pace was another Ganassi car, that of Charlie Kimball who dropped ten positions in the first lap as he struggled to hold onto the car on the bumpy Iowa Speedway; the Dale Coyne Racing cars were also looking off the pace at the back of the field where they were joined by an understandably tentative Jack Hawksworth, back from the injury he sustained in practice at last week's race at Pocono.
On the up side, Andretti Autosport's Hunter-Reay had made his way quickly through the field, up to fifth from 13th place on the grid ahead of Ed Carpenter and Penske's Will Power in seventh. Also making good early progress was Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's Josef Newgarden, up to 16th after starting from the back row of the grid. However, his and everyone else's progress was thwarted on lap 33 when the yellow flags were shown for moisture, and a few minutes later that turned into full-blown rain that forced race control to show a red flag and park everyone under umbrellas on pit lane for nearly half an hour.
Fortunately the rain quickly passed and the jet dryers did a quick job getting the 7/8ths mile oval back in working order. The red was withdrawn and the drivers made a quick round of pit stop which put Castroneves narrowly back out in front of Kanaan followed by Dixon, Power, Briscoe, Carpenter and James Hinchcliffe for the restart on lap 49 which proved especially short-lived, as Schmidt Peterson Motorsport's Mikhail Aleshin immediately spun out and collected AJ Foyt Racing's Takuma Sato on his way to a crunching impact with the wall.
"I just made a mistake," admitted the Russian, nursing a bruised left wrist after a quick trip to be checked out by medical team at the in-field care centre. "I spun. I didn't really know if I went below the line on the exit, but in any case, suddenly the rear of the car just went and there was nothing I could do about it at this point. So I feel very sorry for my team because obviously we had a nice car in the front."
"I just couldn't see anything," Sato said for his part. "It was all smoke and until I hit him, I couldn't see anything. I tried to avoid it. [This season] has been difficult, so many unfortunate events. Somewhere we'll turn up and unfortunately it wasn't this weekend. Hopefully we can keep pushing and do better in Toronto. Not a lot of damage, just bad luck."
Racing finally got back underway on lap 64, and while Castroneves was initially just able to hold on to the lead it was inevitable that his compatriot Kanaan would eventually retake the position, which finally happened on lap 77 when Castroneves got caught up behind the lapped Carlos Huertas who retired soon after, the Colombian being forced to phone in sick.
A new caution was out on lap 90 for debris on the track after a rear wing endplate sheared off Juan Pablo Montoya's #2 car. The Penske team were able to make repairs under the yellow, but some pit lane miscommunication left Montoya agitated and cost him time and position on track. At the front, Kanaan won the race off pit road and picked up the lead again when the race went back to green on lap 100, his lead ranging from a half a second to nearly two seconds over the next stint.
That phase came to an end on lap 161 when Sebastian Saavedra made a glancing impression on the wall after getting loose in turn 2 having surged to an impressive third place; his KVSH Racing team mate Sebastien Bourdais had just retired with an electrical issue, but Saavedra was able to continue after getting the #17 serviced on pit road albeit now a disappointing seven laps off the leaders.
Kanaan was able to pick up the lead again for the restart and once again started to pull out as much as three and a half seconds over Ed Carpenter who had leap-frogged Castroneves on pit lane for second place; however Castroneves, Briscoe, Dixon and Power were soon back on a charge past Carpenter, who was by now struggling for handling in the dirty air left in the wake of backmarkers. The fifth caution closed things up again on lap 231 when Marco Andretti's car came to a smoking halt on the backstretch with engine issues in a slightly less fiery replay of his fate at Texas last month. The yellow came out just after Simon Pagenaud had pitted under green, and now the rest of the field cycled through pit lane with Kanaan retaining the lead and his team mate Scott Dixon popping up in second place ahead of Castroneves, Power and Briscoe for the restart. Carpenter was able to hold on to sixth while Montoya pipped Hinchcliffe for seventh place, with Newgarden claiming tenth ahead of Hunter-Reay who had lost three places on pit lane.
This time Kanaan was temporarily unable to retain his hold on the lead, and after several laps running side-by-side Dixon got by him on the inside into turn 1 on lap 248 to lead for a short spell, before Kanaan rallied and with the help of lapped traffic was able to wrest the top spot back again on lap 263. Thereafter he was able to maintain a steady state lead of around a second until the final caution of the night on lap 282.
That was for Juan Pablo Montoya making contact with the SAFER barrier in turn 4, after he tried a move down the inside of Ed Carpenter only for the #20 to chop him onto the apron which sent him washing up into the outside wall. Suffering his first DNF of the season, Montoya's fury was apparent as he waited for Carpenter to pass by the accident scene but the race officials declared that no action would be taken over the incident.
Carpenter took the opportunity to pit under the caution, and a few other drivers including Hunter-Reay, Newgarden and Graham Rahal who were stuck in no man's land did likewise in the hope that four fresh tyres would conjure a rabbit out of the hat in the remaining nine laps of the race. And the results were truly phenomenal, Hunter-Reay sweeping past the cars ahead of him so that by lap 297 he was right on the heels of race leader Kanaan and challenging for the lead.
Kanaan had nothing left in reserve and could do little to prevent Hunter-Reay blasting past him in time to take the white flag. Nor could Kanaan do anything about Newgarden who was following in Hunter-Reay's track marks on his own new set of tyres. By the time the chequered flag came out, Hunter-Reay was over half a second out in front and Newgarden a further four tenths ahead of the long-time leader, a stunning result very much against the run of form for the majority of the race.
"That was crazy," admitted a shellshocked Hunter-Reay. "We took the tyres as a big gamble and credit to [race engineer] Ray Gosselin and [race strategist/team owner] Michael Andretti for making that call. That was fun, it was like a video game at the end. We had a tough day, but you have to keep your head in it in the Verizon IndyCar Series."
"We stole it today but I'll take it any way we can get it," said Michael Andretti. "When it came time to do it I was like, 'Screw it' - what were we going to do, lose three spots?"
"It's almost unfair when you put on fresh tyres at the end," added Newgarden. "We kept carving up to the top and with five laps to go I knew this was going to be really good. I think we were catching all the breaks we could, and it was great to have a run that was representative of our pace."
Naturally Tony Kanaan was distinctly less thrilled with the way that the race had ended: "It's such a shame because we dominated the race. To win races we have to run up front, so we'll take the third place and go to Toronto."
Scott Dixon held on to finish in fourth place behind his team mate, and fresh tyres helped Carpenter bounce back to fifth place ahead of Hinchcliffe and Rahal, while Helio Castroneves has slipped back to eighth place in the final laps - still better than Will Power who washed up into the marbles while battling with Hunter-Reay and narrowly avoided hitting the wall, but nonetheless leaving him limping home as the last man on the lead lap.
That setback cost Power his share of the Verizon IndyCar Series championship lead, which is now in the hands of his Penske team mate Castroneves by a slender nine point margin. Victory at Iowa puts Hunter-Reay back up to third place in the standings ahead of Pagenaud, while Montoya's retirement blunts the advances he made last week at the double points event at Pocono.
However all the drivers will have their chance to shake things up again next week, as the series makes its only trip out of the United States for the doubleheader event on the streets of Toronto, Canada.
Full race results from Iowa Speedway