Commentary

Early luck gives Briscoe winning strategy at Mid-Ohio

The day went about as well as team owner Roger Penske could hope for at Mid-Ohio. Some early luck led to the winning strategy for Ryan Briscoe, and teammate Helio Castroneves finished second to trim into the series lead held by Scott Dixon, writes John Oreovicz.

Updated: July 20, 2008, 7:12 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ohio -- Helio Castroneves should know by now that it doesn't pay to start from the pole at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Back in 2000 and 2001, Castroneves ceded the top qualifying spot at Mid-Ohio to his Penske Racing teammate Gil de Ferran, but beat his fellow Brazilian both years. Then last year, Castroneves nabbed his first Mid-Ohio pole only to finish third on race day behind Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.

Pole position at Mid-Ohio didn't pan out again this year for Castroneves. He finished second in the Honda Indy 200, beaten by current Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe by 7.264 seconds.

Castroneves' only consolation was the fact that he finished one position ahead of IndyCar Series championship leader Scott Dixon, cutting five points from his advantage. The New Zealander's championship lead now stands at 58 points more than Castroneves and 90 points more than Tony Kanaan, who finished seventh Sunday.

Briscoe started from the front row but was the last driver to pit for slick tires, as the 2.258-mile road course rapidly dried out after a wet start. The Australian fell back to 15th place but got a break when he made a Lap 23 pit stop immediately before a full-course caution after Mario Dominguez's spin.

The unintended strategy ended up working for Briscoe, who scored his first career IndyCar Series victory earlier this year at the Milwaukee Mile.

"It's a great day for us and real validation of how good a driver Ryan Briscoe is," team owner Roger Penske said. "It was a little bit dicey there at the beginning, but he stayed cool, and it was a good points day for us, too.

"He's a great young driver and we got lucky with the strategy we worked out. But it was one of those days that you like to have once in a while."

IndyCar officials declared the contest a wet race, so everyone had to start on rain tires. Darren Manning and Vitor Meira pitted for slicks at the end of the first lap, and Dixon was none too pleased that he was not allowed to start on slicks.

"The part I was disappointed about is that you can't choose what kind of tires you want to start on for the first part of the race," Dixon said. "I have no idea why they do that. Once you got out there, if you had looked at the track, you quite easily could have run slicks from the beginning."

Meira (Panther Racing) led 21 laps on the way to sixth place, while Justin Wilson led another 11 tours before being spun out by Dominguez during a full-course caution. The numerous yellow flag periods allowed for creative pit stop strategies, and that's how Briscoe emerged in the lead on Lap 40. He remained out front to the end of the 85-lap event, other than a brief five-lap period after his final routine pit stop.

"What a comeback, and it's all down to strategy from Roger Penske himself," said Briscoe, who jumped from ninth to fifth in the IndyCar standings. "We made a bit of a mistake and stayed out one lap too many early, but hey, we got it back.

"What a weekend for the team -- it really couldn't have been better. It just feels so good to get this win. It's been a rough couple of weeks in the lead-up into here, so this one's bittersweet for sure. Hopefully we'll keep some momentum from here."

The second-place finish rekindled some old memories for Castroneves, who used fuel strategy as the key to his two wins for Penske at Mid-Ohio when the team still competed in the CART series.

"Looks like Roger pulled a Castroneves move from the past," the driver said. "They did a good job. The yellow came at the right place for them, but Ryan drove a heck of a race. I was doing everything I could but we just didn't have enough. It's a shame, but second is good."

Dixon wasn't terribly happy with third place, but he was pleased with the damage control to his championship lead.

"It was kind of strange," Dixon said. "There was no real rhythm to the race, and it was a fuel race from the start.

"We just never got that momentum on the track or in the pits to pass Helio or Briscoe. We just didn't have enough. We tried a few times on Helio, but he had a strong car into Turn 2. But good points for us -- we only lost five to Helio, which is respectable."

KV Racing Technology had its best day of the season, with Will Power and Oriol Servia taking fourth and fifth for the team. Those who had bad days included Marco Andretti and Dan Wheldon, both of whom were swept into Wilson's Lap 43 spin under yellow.

The IndyCar Series heads immediately to Edmonton for the sixth race in six consecutive weekends on Saturday (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET).

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

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