Nashville race hampered by lack of second racing groove
Title contenders were concerned coming in to the IndyCar race at Nashville Superspeedway that lapped traffic could be a problem. Their concerns were well founded, writes John Oreovicz.
LEBANON, Tenn. -- Traffic was the hot topic before and after the Firestone Indy 200 -- and not just on the permanent construction zone that is the greater Nashville freeway system.
Nashville Superspeedway is basically a one-groove track for the IndyCar Series, and heading into the 200-lap (266-mile) race, the front-running drivers were concerned that lapped traffic would be a big factor in the rain-delayed event.
They were right. Tony Kanaan was eliminated after just 36 laps when he was too aggressive while trying to lap Sarah Fisher, and Ed Carpenter was the caboose on a train of backmarkers that cost Dario Franchitti the lead and possibly the win.
Instead, victory went to Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon, who lapped Carpenter and snookered Franchitti and Dan Wheldon in one fell swoop. That helped the New Zealand native trim Franchitti's championship lead from 47 to 34 points.
The dramatic four-car stack-up in Turn 3 on the 89th lap may prove to be the key to Dixon winning a second IndyCar championship to go along with the one he earned in 2003.
"It was pretty hairy there for a few seconds," Dixon said with a grin. "It could have been pretty bad because you might not just wreck your car, but maybe wreck yourself.
"But I just stayed on it. I knew Dario was in a situation where he might be thinking about the lead in points. And I trust Dario. He's a great competitor, a very fair guy to race with. I knew if I was on the inside of him, he was going to give me the room."
Franchitti didn't name names, but he made it clear after the race that he wasn't too happy with the cooperation he got from some drivers trying too hard to avoid going a lap down.
"I was struggling with some lapped cars -- even the ones that weren't making it difficult, and those were few and far between," Franchitti said. "We got screwed in traffic."
Carpenter was certainly an obvious offender. Third-place finisher Danica Patrick was furious after spending the last quarter of the race bottled up behind the 13th-place Vision Racing entry.
"There were a few people that were good out there, Buddy [Rice] and Sarah [Fisher] and some of those other people," Patrick stated. "But Carpenter was not cooperating and it's unfortunate that there was zero cooperation from lapped traffic. You have to accept when you're a lap down and when you're off the pace, you are. You need to let other people that are at the front have their race.
"But what are you going do?" she said chuckling before jokingly adding, "I'll just hit him next time."
Fisher might have been polite to Patrick, but her lack of pace led to Kanaan's downfall. On the 36th lap, Fisher's Dreyer & Reinbold Racing machine got squirrelly in Turn 2 as Kanaan swept by on the outside. At the exit of the corner, her car's front end washed up the track and the resulting contact sent the Brazilian into a spin and light left-side contact with the wall.
"I tried to go around Sarah on the outside and I just lost it," Kanaan admitted. "The track was still very green because of the rain and I'm very disappointed right now because this really hurts in the championship. We've had a lot of accidents the last few weeks so it's time to regroup and move forward."
The only driver who seemed able to deal effectively with the jam cars as well as pass a few rivals for position was Sam Hornish Jr. But Team Penske missed badly on the initial race setup and Hornish dropped to 10th place after the first stint before working back up to fourth at the checkered flag.
Even the three-time IndyCar Series champion could feel empathy for the stragglers at the back.
"A couple times today [traffic] helped me, but more times I think it hurt me than anything else," Hornish said. "There were some cars out there that would run really off the pace and that's such a tough [position] to be in because you're just fighting for your life out there, trying not to put the thing in the wall.
"You're trying to stay out of the way, but sometimes you just have to make that decision to park it or come in and fix it."
Around the paddock
Nashville Superspeedway's 25,000 capacity main grandstand was full prior to the Saturday night deluge that delayed the race 18 hours, but only about a third of those spectators came back for Sunday's noon start. Jeff Simmons nearly caused a catastrophic accident when he lost control in the pit entry lane on the 188th lap. The Ethanol Council-sponsored entry shot up the track in Turn 4 into the path of Kosuke Matsuura, who veered to the right in avoidance and lightly brushed the wall. After at least four crashes this season, Simmons has reportedly been on shaky ground recently at Rahal Letterman Racing and the near-miss with Matsuura may be the last straw for Bobby Rahal and general manager Scott Roembke. Several drivers are under consideration, including Patrick Carpentier, Alex Barron, Alex Gurney and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.