- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Maybe the organizers of the Nikon Indy 300 should consider making their headline race a non-points-paying exhibition every year.
The IndyCar Series championship was decided in Scott Dixon's favor seven weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway, but Dixon and Ryan Briscoe waged an exciting duel on the streets of Surfers Paradise, Australia, on Sunday even though there was little more than pride at stake.
A mainstay on the CART/Champ Car circuit for the past 17 years, the Australian race was a late addition to the unified IndyCar Series schedule -- too late for it to count for the open-wheel championship.
Yet amid a firestorm of controversy over whether the popular event has a future of any kind with IndyCar, two drivers with strong Australian ties -- Briscoe is a Sydney native, while New Zealand-raised Dixon was born in Brisbane -- produced arguably the best open-wheel race the Gold Coast has ever seen.
Briscoe's Team Penske Dallara/Honda and Dixon's similar car run by Target/Ganassi Racing were rarely separated by more than a second during the final half of the 60-lap contest. Dixon closed right onto Briscoe's rear wing several times in the closing laps when the leader encountered lapped traffic, but Briscoe held on by 0.5019 of a second for his third victory of the 2008 season.
Assuming he gets credit for the non-championship win in the record book.
But lack of points aside, the victory was significant for the Sydney native in several ways. Remarkably, it was only Briscoe's third car race in his homeland, as he moved to Europe at age 15 while still racing karts.
"What a way to come off the year, with a win in my home country. It doesn't get any better than this," said Briscoe.
"It means a lot to me to win a race here in front of my family and friends, as I haven't raced much in my home country. It's a big honor to win here."
The hard-earned result gave Briscoe and his No. 6 Penske team a flying head start on the 2009 season. It also sent a powerful message that the 27-year-old is ready to assume a leadership mantle at Team Penske if his more experienced teammate Helio Castroneves' career is derailed by his legal troubles.
"This race is important for the 2009 season, as the first two races are on street courses next year," Briscoe said. "I also had a new engineer on board -- Eric Cowdin -- and it was great having the opportunity to work with him."
Briscoe qualified third, but got a good run on Dixon into the first corner on the opening lap, forcing the Target/Ganassi driver to shortcut the chicane. Indy Racing League officials ordered Dixon to cede the position to Briscoe on the second lap, by which time pole winner (and Toowoomba, Australia native) Will Power was more than three seconds up the road.
What a way to come off the year, with a win in my home country. It doesn't get any better than this.
-- Ryan Briscoe
Power dominated the majority of the Surfers Paradise weekend until he squandered pole position for the third year in a row by tapping the Turn 6 wall on the 17th lap. The impact bent the left-front suspension of the Team Australia entry too bad to continue.
"I just clipped that inside wall," Power lamented. "A very bad mistake and very unfortunate. I had pulled such a gap so I really went into saving heaps of fuel.
"There wasn't really any pressure -- I knew I had the quickest car," he added. "It just caught me out. A bad mistake, but that's life. What can I say?"
Power's retirement left Dixon in the position of chief pursuer, but once the final round of pit stops was out of the way on Lap 39, Dixon never really got close enough to Briscoe to challenge for the lead.
"The traffic at the end made it exciting," Dixon related. "Obviously we just didn't have enough speed to pass; he was super quick, especially on the longer runs, but we were a little quicker at traffic.
"Overall he was quicker than me, but it was in different spots [of the track]. We were quicker on the backside. I don't know -- if he had made a mistake, we could have got him."
Every time Dixon cut into Briscoe's lead, the Penske driver responded with a quicker lap.
"Dixon is very quick and consistent, and he was in my mirrors all day long," Briscoe said. "But I just had to focus on not making a mistake and bringing it all home."
While the race for the lead was a two-man show, the race overall was one of the cleaner and more competitive in the history of the Surfers Paradise street course. It was a far cry from the weather-marred farces of 2002 and 2003 CART/Champ Car events when more than half the laps were run behind the pace car.
The close and competitive race -- not to mention the four-day attendance of 297,288, with a race day crowd announced as 94,465 -- should give the Indy Racing League plenty to think about over the next few days. Now that they have experienced Surfers Paradise in person, IRL officials may be a bit more motivated to find room for the Australian event on the IndyCar schedule in 2009 and beyond.
With or without championship status.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.