CLICK: Full race results from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
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There was no question that Scott Dixon's race weekend had been ruined 24 hours earlier in qualifying, when a penalty for causing a red flag meant that he faced starting the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course from dead last. No one - not even the driver who had mastered this track four times in the past - could possibly do anything about getting on the podium from there.
Polewinner Sebastien Bourdais had looked in imperious form as he took the lead into the first corner, holding off a spirited Josef Newgarden who jinked first one way and then the other in an effort to find a gap to get through. As he tried around the outside of turn 4, Newgarden made light contact with the front of Tony Kanaan's car and the #10 was tipped into a spin that left the rest of the field scattering to avoid him. Marco Andretti was the unlucky man who ran out of time to react and who then ploughed right into the stalled #10, with Takuma Sato also making less serious contact with Andretti at the same moment.
A safety car was immediately deployed to clear up the wreckage, which was a small crumb of comfort to championship leader Helio Castroneves who had never even taken the green flag. Instead, he had been forced back on to pit lane to have a stuck throttle taken care of that left him four laps down by the time he was finally able to rejoin the rest of the field in time for the restart.
Bourdais was once again able to secure his lead at the restart ahead of Newgarden, Ryan Huunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Carlos Huertas and Carlos Munoz. Munoz was fending off heavy pressure from his Andretti Autosport team mate James Hinchcliffe who was up in seventh from 17th on the grid thanks to that early disruption, while among those to have lost out were Will Power who had dropped four spots to tenth place while avoiding Kanaan, and Justin Wilson who had gone from eighth to 14th place thanks to the caution.
Several cars including those of Dixon, Wilson and Simon Pagenaud opted to make early pit stops in the hope of using strategy to improve their moribund positions at the notoriously hard-to-overtake Mid-Ohio circuit, and on lap 13 Hinchcliffe followed suit followed two laps later by Power and Ryan Briscoe. The leaders stayed out until past lap 20, Newgarden coming in on lap 21 and Bourdais able to push his own set of nominally short-life red-walled softy option tyres all the way to the end of lap 26 before pitting, even outlasting Mike Conway who had topped up his fuel under the caution on lap 2. Hunter-Reay and Huertas managed to go one better before they too came on to pit road.
Hunter-Reay returned to the track just ahead of Bourdais but the Frenchman made quick use of his up-to-temperature tyres to get around the Andretti Autosport car even before the call came down from race control that Hunter-Reay was being handed a drive-thru penalty for speeding on pit lane that meant he dropped down to ninth place, the meat in a Penske sandwich between Power and Juan Pablo Montoya. However he didn't stay there for long: on lap 37 the #28 spun coming through the high-speed turn 11 lefthander, leaving Hunter-Reay running off backwards but fortunately able to arrest the car's momentum before it made any contact with the tyre wall. Even so, his misfortune brought out the second caution of the day as Hunter-Reay waited for the safety crew to get to him and fire the car back up again.
Everyone used the caution to come on to pit lane, Bourdais maintaining the lead while Munoz got ahead of Newgarden for second. Rahal, Hinchcliffe and Huertas held position, but the two Penske cars of Power and Montoya both managed to get the better of Pagenaud. However the new leader of the race was the man who had started in last position: Scott Dixon had stayed out, having pitted off-sync only nine laps previously meaning that he would get to lead the field to green on lap 43.
Despite some feisty jockeying for position, no one was able to gain a decisive advantage at the restart: Dixon held off Bourdais and quickly started to pull away at the front thanks to the benefit of running the faster red-walled tyres while Bourdais and Munoz were serving their stint on the primes. Newgarden had the same advantage as Dixon and after a couple of laps getting up to speed the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing driver was able to force his way past both men ahead of him with comparative ease to take up second position, rapidly closing the gap to Dixon for the lead.
Newgarden couldn't make the pass, but the team instructed him to keep the pressure on Dixon with the aim of pushing Dixon's already-marginal fuel situation over the edge and prevent him from making it to the finish on just one more stop as the rest of the field was now poised to do. Dixon was finally forced to surrender the lead and pit on lap 62, putting him at the very edge of making it to the finish on fuel.
He came back out on track in 13th, leaving Newgarden in control of the race by almost five seconds over Bourdais. The pair pitted together three laps later on lap 65 along with the majority of the leading pack; unfortunately it was a nightmare stop for the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing crew as the incoming car ran over the air hose and tangled up the right rear tyre changer who tripped and fell, delaying the stop by several crucial seconds and also earning Newgarden a drive-thru penalty to put the final nail in the hopes of his winning the race.
All of that excitement on pit lane put Bourdais back out ahead of Munoz, while Hinchcliffe delayed his stop by a lap and exited pit lane right in front of the pair only for Bourdais to make quick work and pass him for position while Hinch's tyres were still warming up. However that move wasn't for the lead but rather for second place, as Dixon had now cycled back to the front by almost seven seconds: the question now was whether the Ganassi driver had sufficient fuel to maintain that lead and still make it to the finish of the race.
It turned out that he did - but by the barest minimum of margins. As he ran through the final corners the team radio was advising Dixon to cruise to the finish line, and once past the chequered flag to claim the win the #9 made it only as far as turn 1 before grinding to a halt.
"If we didn't run out of fuel right there I think we would have run out on the back side of the circuit, so it would have been a long walk!" said Dixon, a big smile of relief on his face.
"Truthfully, I didn't think it was possible," Dixon admitted of the audacious strategy. "Great pit stops by everybody on Team Target and the strategy was spot on once we got that yellow [for Hunter-Reay's spin]. Long, hard-fought day but huge thanks to Chevy and obviously we got fantastic fuel mileage there, too."
The race was won and Ganassi was back in victory lane for the first time in 2014, Dixon becoming the tenth different winner for the seventh different team in the 15 races so far this season. Despite the tight fuel situation Dixon had finished with more than five seconds in hand over Bourdais who had successfully kept Hinchcliffe at heel for the closing laps of the race. Munoz followed his team mate home in fourth place ahead of Graham Rahal who got his best finish since Detroit in fifth place.
Will Power finished as the best of the championship contenders in sixth place and went into the lead of the title battle by four points over his Penske team mate Helio Castroneves. Power had needed to work hard to hold off a very aggressive Charlie Kimball in the closing laps; Kimball was followed across the line by his Ganassi team mate Ryan Briscoe, with Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay rounding out the top ten.
Josef Newgarden dropped to 12th place as a result of that late pit stop fumble and penalty. Also suffering drive-thru penalties during the race were Schmidt Peterson Motorsport's Mikhail Aleshin (for speeding on pit lane) and Carlos Huertas (for blocking his own Dale Coyne Racing team mate Justin Wilson); they finished 14th and 17th respectively.
Helio Castroneves was never able to recover the laps he lost at the start with the struck throttle issue. Takuma Sato was also off the lead lap at the end after suffering lingering problems from his first lap contact with Marco Andretti. However the only driver to retire during the 90-lap race other than Andretti and Kanaan was Sebastian Saavedra, who suffered mechanical failure on lap 24.
The IndyCar drivers now have a week off before they head into the final three races of the season, beginning with a return to the Milwaukee Mile on August 17. After that, two consecutive weekends in California at Sonoma and Fontana will decide who becomes the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion.
See full race results from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
See full Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings