Any time someone wants to tell you that oval racing is dull, just get out the recording of this year's MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway - and three hours later ask them if they still think that's the case. "That was one of the most nerve-wracking races I've ever been a part of," was the honest verdict of Verizon IndyCar Series veteran Tony Kanaan.

Actually you could challenge them on the point just five minutes into the race, because from the moment the green flag came out the race instantaneously erupted into full-blown, spectacularly aggressive pack racing. It was almost as if the drivers didn't realise that they had 500 miles of competition ahead of them but were instead somehow thinking that they were in a no-holds-barred sprint finish to the line.

A new series record number of 80 lead changes among 14 of the 23 participating drivers culminated in Graham Rahal finally being declared the winner, his first visit to victory lane since his one and only previous win in the series in 2008 at St Petersburg, 125 races ago. In doing so, Rahal had to overcome a catastrophic team miscue during a late pit stop that saw Rahal tear the fuel hose off the refuelling rig as he exited his pit box.

"It's been so long coming. It's awesome," said the 26-year-old, who is the eighth different winner in 11 races so far in 2015. "I think the combination of downforce and tyres made for multiple lanes of racing that was nerve-racking but exciting. The width of this place, the guys were able to stay in their lanes."

CLICK: Full race results for the MAVTV 500 from Auto Club Speedway.

After searing temperatures for practice and qualifying on Friday, everyone in Fontana, California - drivers, teams and fans alike - had been very relieved to find Saturday's unexpectedly overcast conditions had significantly reduced the air and track temperatures for the start of Saturday afternoon's race. In previous years the event had been run in the evening after sunset, so the big question going in appeared to be whether the still-hot daytime conditions this year would have any impact on reliability. It turned out that this would prove to be the last thing on anyone's mind once the action got underway.

Pole sitter Simon Pagenaud led the field to the green flag in the Penske #22 but he quickly found the pace at the front too hot to handle, and he was passed through turn 1 by Marco Andretti. Pagenaud's team mates Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya followed Andretti through and it was an immediate three-wide battle at the front that rapidly escalated to become a quartet with the arrival of the scene of Ganassi's Tony Kanaan. The lead bounced around all four cars, changing almost by the second and at times even quicker than the television captions could keep up with.

The racing continued fast and furious with no one looking like they were content to play the waiting game despite the long 500-mile race stretching ahead of them. Montoya dropped back from the battle at the front after slight contact with Kanaan that fortunately did no significant damage to either car, and his place at the front was taken up by the equally feisty Ed Carpenter in the #20 CFH Racing car. Not that this situation remained static for very long either, and soon Ganassi rookie Sage Karam was insisting on making his presence felt amongst the more experienced drivers as was Schmidt Peterson Motorsport's Ryan Briscoe, back subbing this weekend for the injured James Hinchcliffe in the #5 car. Also in the top ten were championship contenders Scott Dixon (Ganassi) and Will Power (Penske) while for the time being Pagenaud was content to stay away from the sharp end and play a waiting game instead.

After the first 20 laps the race had only marginally settled down after a breathless start, with Andretti and Kanaan tag-teaming in the lead while Karam shadowed them waiting for the opportunity to taste the clean air at the front for himself. He made the move on lap 24 to claim the lead for the first time, with Kanaan opting to second chair for a spell ahead of Andretti, Carpenter and Montoya as tyre degradation led to increased complaints of oversteer throughout the field.

KV Racing Technology's Stefano Coletti kicked off the first round of green flag pit stops on lap 33 and two laps later Kanaan came in from the lead. All four Penske cars came in on lap 38 and it was a best of times/worst of times scenario for the squad, with efficient stops for Montoya and Pagenaud on the one hand compared with a problem getting the #2 car refired for Castroneves, while Power entered at an awkward angle in his pit stall that made it hard work for the front left tyre changer to do his job. At least that was better than the situation at Dale Coyne Racing, where Tristan Vautier ran into his own tyre changer: the IndyCar medical team responded and stretchered the injured crew member away to the in-field care centre for evaluation and treatment.

Once the stops had cycled through, Kanaan and Andretti were back at the front but soon it was the Indy 500 champion Montoya who burst through to take control on lap 44 with AJ Foyt Racing's Takuma Sato also now looking particularly strong on his new set of tyres as he took up residence in second ahead of Andretti and Karam. Sato soon broke through to the lead himself on lap 47 and then managed to fend off counterstrikes from Dixon and Carpenter to build up a slender three-tenths of a second lead that he maintained impressively until Kanaan decided to reassert control just before the start of the second round of pit stops on lap 70.

This time the cycle went in Will Power's favour and he emerged back on the track in the lead ahead of Castroneves, Kanaan, Sato, Carpenter and Montoya while Dixon fell back to eighth behind Pagenaud after the Ganassi #9 had a real struggle to get back up to speed. Dixon came back out right in the middle of a hot-bed of action with packs of cars going three- and even four-wide as the action continued to be absolutely unrelenting right through the running order, and yet at the same time the drivers had somehow remarkably managed to avoid triggering any full course cautions despite the unrelenting close-quarters action.

The green flag spell continued as the race passed the 100-lap mark, Kanaan returning to the front ahead of Power and Castroneves with Sato following him through into second place just in time for the next round of green flag pit stops to commence. The fresh tyres prompted another outbreak of super-aggressive white-knuckle racing, with Sato paying for his weaving through the traffic with some damage to the front wing that took the edge off the pace of the #14 and stopped him from marching straight back to the front. Instead it was Castroneves who took up the lead on lap 114 ahead of Briscoe, with Graham Rahal suddenly coming alive for the first time in the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing car having started from 19th place on the grid after a disappointing qualifying.

The battle for second between Briscoe and Rahal allowed Castroneves to pull out a half second lead over the rest of the field as the race passed the halfway point of the 250-lap distance still without a caution. Once Rahal did manage to dispatch Briscoe the threat was immediately replaced by Montoya, but on lap 136 Rahal was finally able to break free and get a run on Castroneves for the lead for the first time in the race. In doing so he took the air off the Penske's front wing and Castroneves lost pace, dropping back and catching the cars behind him by surprise; Helio found himself in a tight-three wide sandwich between Power and Briscoe and this time there really was significant contact, Castroneves spinning out as a result and into a low-speed rearwards impact with the inside retaining wall on the backstretch that brought out the yellow flags for the first time.

"Unfortunately Rahal was coming up on me, and then kind of like, he really squeezed on me at the top," explained Castroneves. "As soon as I come into position that I think I was going to, that I was about to push, I started lifting because I didn't want to crash. I think we touched, and one lap before he was already squeezing me.

"So I'm kind of like lifting, and all of the sudden people are coming and start chopping, and Briscoe and Will, all of the sudden, they just closed it up. Briscoe didn't have to do that. He just turned into me and as soon as he turned into me I was like, 'This is a tough one.'"

The long-awaited caution did at least allow the drivers to get a well-earned breather after more than 80 minutes of non-stop frantic action. Will Power beat Rahal off pit road followed by Montoya, Kanaan, Carpenter, Dixon, Pagenaud and Andretti. Briscoe dropped all the way to the back of the lead lap in 17th place after needing a new rear wing assembly, and he was then handed a further drive-thru penalty for causing the collision. Meanwhile the Penske team worked feverishly in the garage area to repair the #3 car, but after a tentative shakedown lap Castroneves was forced to return to pit lane to retire the car for good.

"We went out, it looks like the toe links are bent," sighed Castroneves. "We had a fantastic car. It's a shame we have to finish like this, but we'll see what happens."

Following a lengthy break for a general track clean-up, the race resumed on lap 152 and almost immediately the competition assumed new heights of near-insane levels of aggression with multiple rows of three- and four-wide racing extending from the front row all the way back down the running order. Power initially maintained the lead but then pole man Pagenaud roared back into contention, before Andretti Autosport's Carlos Munoz took to the front for the first time of the day just before the caution flags came out for the second time on lap 158.

This time the cause was down to both CFH Racing cars crashing out: Ed Carpenter had just been passed on track by Montoya and the move had taken the downforce off his front wing, leaving the #20 in a slow slide up the track where his team mate Josef Newgarden was running the high line. Newgarden had no idea about the impending danger in time to pull back, and so Carpenter ended up pinching him into the wall in turn 4 resulting in both cars sustaining major damage and retiring on the spot, although at least the two drivers were able to climb out uninjured.

"It doesn't get much worse than taking out your team mate and crashing both team cars," said Carpenter. "It's stupid. I should have lifted and left more room up there but I didn't even know anyone was even coming, I didn't have that information. I am pretty bummed out about it. We had a good car, ran up front all day, and I would have been there at the end."

"I ran out of room," summarised Newgarden. "I think Ed was hearing one thing from his spotter, he just washed up into lane 4 and we ran into the wall. It's unfortunate because you don't want to have both cars out of the race. If it was just one of us it would be better, but we just got together with probably a little bit of miscommunication on what was going on."

Racing resumed again on lap 167 and while Munoz was initially able to hold off challenges from his team mate Marco Andretti and also Tony Kanaan, he finally succumbed to a move down the inside from Will Power. Power's lead did not last long before Takuma Sato dropped into the slipstream of the #1 to make his own move back the front, which was probably the safest place to be given how the rest of the cars were darting all over the track at speeds of over 200mph and coming within millimetres of making catastrophic contact with one another seemingly every few seconds.

Kanaan wanted that sort of security for himself and soon managed to pass Sato for the lead on lap 179, only to fall prey to a phenomenal move around the outside by Marco Andretti. Graham Rahal was also still in the mix at the front as a new round of pit stops got underway, but the stop proved disastrous for the RLL team as confusion among the pit crew resulted in the refueller unexpectedly reinserting the fuel hose as the car was ushered out of the pit stall. That meant the fuel hose was ripped away as Rahal pulled out, spilling fuel over the pit stall and forcing Rahal to come straight back in trailing the amputated hose behind him. The race itself was also forced back under a debris caution by the incident as a fuel buckeye had fallen off the #15 during its abortive sojourn back out on the track. Controversially, race control decided not to hand Rahal an in-race penalty for the incident - although IndyCar's president of competition and operations Derrick Walker indicated that there would be a post-race fine heading in the team's direction mid-week.

With the end of the race now looming, strategy was starting to become increasingly important and a number of cars opted to pit under the caution. The AJ Foyt Racing team also needed to call Sato in for repairs following rear-end contact from Sage Karam just before the yellows came out. That left Montoya in charge at the front ahead of Andretti, Power, Dixon, Briscoe and his SPM team mate James Jakes in sixth ahead of Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay and Charlie Kimball in the #83 Ganassi.

The race resumed with 52 laps remaining, Andretti immediately jumping to the lead but instantly under heavy pressure from Power, Dixon, Kanaan, Briscoe and then from Hunter-Reay who succeeded in leading his first laps all season as the action went to a whole new level of craziness with a five-wide battle for control. Finally the battle resolved itself into a sustained side-by-side battle between Power and Andretti, with Kanaan and Rahal lurking immediately behind the pair ready to pounce if and when the opportunity arose.

Further back, minor contact between Dixon and Munoz resulted in the left rear tyre guard from the #26 flying into the air and forming a sizeable chunk of debris that forced a new caution on lap 220, ideal timing for all the teams to undertake their final round of pit stops. Power and Andretti resumed at the front followed by Rahal and Kanaan, with Pagenaud just edging Briscoe, Montoya and Karam in the race off pit road followed by Hunter-Reay and Dixon rounding out the top ten heading into the restart on lap 227.

Power came under attack from all sides but managed to hold on to the lead - at least, he did until Ryan Briscoe took advantage of Power becoming distracted with Kanaan attacking on the outside. Briscoe used the moment to successfully insert himself on the all-important low line which allowed him to run side-by-side with Power and thwart the Australian's every attempt to dispatch him. In the end it was Power was was forced to back off, and he immediately fell back multiple positions which put him running three-wide on the outside of Takuma Sato and Scott Dixon just as the Japanese driver got loose and bobbled, bouncing first into Dixon on one side and then into Power on the other. The second collision was the clincher, and both Sato and Power ended up in the wall and out of the race. Given the serious impact this would have on his hopes of retaining his championship title, it was no surprise that Power took it particularly badly as he literally threw his toys out of the pram and then shoved a safety worker who was attempting to herd him to the medical car while keeping him a diplomatic distance away from Sato in the process.

"The Verizon Chevy team did a great job today, despite how tough of a day it was," said Power after he'd had time to cool down. "When you have a pack race like what we had today, you have to take a lot of risks to gain track position. As exciting as it is, it's intense at the same time."

Since there were just six laps remaining, the race went under a red flag to allow the track to be cleaned-up ahead of the final restart. A video freeze-frame showed that Graham Rahal had been literally inches ahead of Briscoe and Kanaan when the caution was declared followed by Dixon in fourth ahead of Montoya, Pagenaud, Karam and Jakes, while a number of drivers including Marco Andretti chose this moment to play a strategy joker by pitting again for fresh tyres for the final push to the line.

When the race restarted, Rahal managed to leap away with Kanaan holding on to his coat tails and Andretti blazing a trail right through the pack. Montoya was running in fourth place and Hunter-Reay thought he saw an opening to get past, only for that door to slam shut in his face and send the #28 into a slow slide and ended in contact with Briscoe. As the two cars went off onto the grass, the rear end of the #5 rose into the air and the car flipped over, and to make matters worse the nose then dug into the grass and snapped Briscoe into a vicious twist that tore chunks off the car before finally coming to a rest right-side up. For a few seconds everyone held their breath fearing the worst, but Briscoe was soon giving the thumbs up - after checking that his head was still attached to his shoulders after one of the scariest rides of his career.

It went without saying that the race ended under yellow. The telemetry confirmed that Rahal had won the race from Kanaan with Andretti joining them on the podium.

"It feels good, and is a big day for us. It shows that our rebound this season is legit," said Rahal. "The team is why all of this has come together. Hopefully I can move on from here and not make it seven years until I win again ... Our weakest has been these ovals and I told the guys this morning that the next three races will define our year," he added.

"I can't be too upset with a podium-finish," was Kanaan's verdict. "We battled up front all day and the #10 NTT DATA Chevrolet was really quick. I was actually in the middle of a pass when that last yellow came out, so who knows what could've happened if we would've stayed green until the end."

In the championship points standings, Power's late accident means that he drops back from points leader Juan Pablo Montoya who now enjoys a 46 point advantage over the rest of the field. Rahal's win means that he moves up into title contention ahead of Helio Castroneves and into fourth place just behind Scott Dixon.

After this week's breathless and frankly somewhat insane action at times, it's just as well that the series takes a week off to recover. The next race will be the ABC Supply Wisconsin 250 at The Milwaukee Mile on July 12.

See full race results for the MAVTV 500 from Auto Club Speedway.


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