Timely caution pulls Wheldon out of yearlong drought
It had been a year and a day since Dan Wheldon had won a race. A little luck and a very good car took care of that Sunday at Kansas, writes John Oreovicz.
Scott Dixon dominated the first three-quarters of the 200-lap IndyCar Series event, but unlucky timing on his final pit stop cost the New Zealand native. That allowed Dan Wheldon to cruise to an easy win over Andretti Green Racing's Tony Kanaan, with Dixon recovering from seventh to third over the final 27 laps.
Dixon led 145 of the first 152 laps before pitting for his final scheduled stop. While he was in the pits, the yellow flag flew for Buddy Rice's Turn 2 accident, costing Dixon the lead to Wheldon.
On the restart, it took Dixon just 10 laps to move up to third place, but he remained there, some four seconds back, for the rest of the race.
It turned out to be a fuel race, albeit not as obvious as last week's IndyCar race won by Danica Patrick at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan.
"It wasn't the last segment, it was the one before," winning team owner Chip Ganassi observed. "We were able to save fuel behind Dixon. Dan ran one more lap, there was a yellow, and that was the race."
Ganassi's cars led 194 of 200 laps Sunday and 371 out of 400 laps over the past two years at Kansas Speedway.
It was generally a superb day for Ganassi. His team also won the Grand Am Rolex Series sports car race, and Juan Pablo Montoya finished second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega.
"I think it was a fantastic team effort by everyone at Target/Ganassi Racing," said Wheldon, who won by 2.178 seconds. "Unfortunately, Scott just got caught by the yellow."
Dixon was clearly angry, lightly flinging the steering wheel from his car when he pulled in at the end of the race. His consolation was moving up to second place in the season standings, six points behind championship leader Helio Castroneves, Sunday's fourth-place finisher.
"It seemed pretty good from the get go," Dixon said. "My car was definitely quick, and we led a lot of laps. We just tried to work out what we need to do fuel-wise. We had enough to get to the end, but we pitted a lap earlier than everyone else and it so happened that Rice crashed in [Turn] 2 while we were in pits and it kind of ruined our day.
"It's pretty frustrating. It was one of those days when you have a good car and you thought you should have won but came up short. It's sort of similar to what happened in Japan and it's kind of frustrating two weeks in a row."
Dixon was certainly convinced he would have beaten his teammate without the ill-timed caution.
"Our cars were both pretty quick, but they were pretty even," Dixon said. "If I had been in front at the end, he would have had a hard time getting past."
The victory ended more than a year of frustration for Wheldon, whose last race win was April 26, 2007, at Kansas. He left that event leading the IndyCar Series championship, but suffered through a comparatively poor May at Indianapolis and a generally sub-par second half to his 2007 season.
"It has been frustrating at times," Wheldon acknowledged. "It's good to get the No. 10 car back in Victory Lane, and we certainly mean business. It was a good day."
Wheldon said it was pointless to speculate on who would have won had his teammate not been delayed.
"Chip gets on my ass all the time about saving fuel -- he thinks I try to lead every lap and win from the front all the time," Wheldon said. "Every possible opportunity, I was saving. So I didn't have a real tough go.
"Certainly it would have been difficult to pass Scott, but I didn't try real hard. Maybe in the traffic something would have happened. It would have been really tight."
Since joining the IndyCar Series in 2002, Wheldon has placed a huge amount of emphasis on the Indianapolis 500. After winning in 2005 and leading many laps in 2006, that strategy may have backfired on him last year as he struggled through a difficult month.
This year, he's playing down his expectations for Indy.
"I haven't really worried about that this year," Wheldon said. "It's so competitive this year that you have to concentrate on each individual race. It's going to be an incredible Indianapolis 500 and I expect both Target/Ganassi cars to be out front."
Maybe the happiest driver at the end of the Kansas race was second-place finisher Kanaan. Andretti Green Racing suffered mechanical maladies all weekend; Patrick retired after 157 laps with a suspected suspension failure, while Marco Andretti and Hideki Mutoh claimed fifth and sixth, respectively.
Kanaan had limited practice time and he adopted Patrick's setup for the race.
"After the day we had yesterday when we had only about 10 laps all day, this is a pretty good result," the Brazilian said. "We got lucky in the end with Scott's misfortune with the caution flag.
"We had a decent car, but not good enough to beat the Ganassi guys."
Other than a 15-lap side-by-side battle for fourth place between Kanaan and A.J. Foyt IV early in the race, Kansas didn't produce the kind of close, packed-up racing the IndyCar Series is famous for.
"The race was kind of boring for all of us and it probably was for the fans too," Kanaan said. "I don't know what we can do to make things more exciting."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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