[Photo Source: Ron McQueeney, Dan Helrigel / IndyCar.com]
The first qualifying session didn't produce many surprises, although Dan Wheldon's (Panther Racing) spin in Turn 5 negated fast laps from rookie Simona de Silvestro (HVM Racing) and Alex Tagliani (FAZZT Race Team) who might have made it through otherwise. Advancing from group one were Dario Franchitti (Suave Target Chip Ganassi Racing), Helio Castroneves (Team Penske), Mike Conway (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing), Marco Andretti (Team Venom Energy Andretti Autosport ), Tony Kanaan (Team 7-Eleven Andretti Autosport) and Mario Moraes (KV Racing Technology), while Will Power (Verizon Team Penske), "rookie" Takuma Sato (Lotus-KV Racing Technology), Scott Dixon (Target Chip Ganassi Racing), E.J. Viso (PDVSA-Jet Aviation-KV Racing Technology), Ryan Briscoe (Team Penske) and Justin Wilson (Team Z-Line Designs/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing) made it out of group two. Sato in particular looked really impressive, his "rookie" tag belying his Formula 1 experience.
Heading into round two, it was Helio Castroneves at the front early on, with Mike Conway and Will Power swapping second. As the session progressed, Power put down a lap that nobody could touch. In fact, Will was looking unbeatable as he led yet another session, finding himself at the top of the sheets in every round he ran. In fact, Power's three-tenth gap over second place was greater than the gap from second to eighth. Behind Power were Andretti, Helio, Conway, Sato and Dixon making it into the final round of qualifying, the Firestone Fast 6.
Mike Conway was one of only two drivers to have saved a set of "sticker" red line tires for the final go, so he looked to be the only car capable of giving Power a run for the Peak Performance Pole. Power, of course, was the other driver running the fresh rubber. Power built up some temp in those tires over several laps, then uncorked a 1:10:1356 lap. Nobody even came close to matching that and Power actually extended the gap between him and second place on the grid, Mike Conway, to a little over half a second. The other racers prospects didn't look good heading into race day, but there was another variable to consider – the Grand-Am boys were running ahead of IndyCar at Barber, so the amount of rubber on track might affect the action.
Race day broke with a big surprise: No rain. The first two races on the IndyCar schedule had seen their fair share of wet weather, but the skies over Barber Motorsports Park were cloudless for a change. With the utterance of "Ladies, gentlemen, y'all start these engines," by track founder George Barber, the engines were fired and the racing action was underway. With 2.3 miles of sinewy natural road course, some 80 feet of elevation changes, and seventeen turns, the course at Barber is challenging, and because passing is difficult, qualifying and pit strategy would be incredibly important.
As Grand Marshal Charles Barkley waived the green, the field filed through turn one without incident, although Scott Dixon was deemed to have jumped the gun a bit so he had to back off and let a couple of cars back through. Power started to pull away from the pack with only Mike Conway able to stay with him. At lap nine Alex Tagliani stopped at the front of the first pit window, setting up an alternate strategy he hoped might help him make up positions from his terrible starting spot. Two laps later Takuma Sato stopped on track, his green and yellow Lotus-sponsored Dallara/Honda the victim of an indeterminate mechanical problem. That gave Tag the chance he was looking for.
Several of the leaders stayed on track during the yellow, but the two up front weren't among them. As soon as the crews finished fitting tires and adding fuel, there was a dragrace to the line between Conway and Power, with Power pulling ahead as they came onto the track. A replay, however, showed that Power was actually ahead at the line, so Conway had to give back the spot. They came out in 14th and 15th respectively. Castroneves inherited the lead, followed by Andretti, Dixon, Franchitti, De Silvestro, Lloyd, Matos, Meira, Patrick, and Kanaan in the top ten. Kanaan, along with Dan Wheldon had pitted along with Tagliani just before the yellow, and were now behind a group of racers who still needed to make their first stops. Right behind them, however, were Power and Conway.
Although he was officially in second coming back to green, Marco didn't wait very long to make his move, using his push-to-pass button perfectly to get in front of Helio. Knowing he had to stop eventually, Andretti (car 26) started to really push hard, opening quite a gap in hopes he could stay out front following his pitstop. Meanwhile, behind them Power soon picked off Tagliani, and Wheldon not too long afterwards, before the leaders finally started pitting, shuffling the running order quite a bit. Castroneves stayed out longest of all and claimed the lead when Marco and the others came into pit. Andretti slotted behind Castroneves, but just ahead of Dixon and Kanaan. A lap later, Helio was in too, coming out right behind Marco. After everybody had made their first stop, it looked like many in the field were going to try to make it a two-stop race.
Kannan (11) came in for a second time around lap 40, followed two laps later by Power, Conway and Ryan Briscoe. At the halfway point it was Marco out front, followed by Castroneves, Dixon, Franchitti, De Silvestro, Power, Kanaan, Conway, Alex Lloyd, Vitor Meira, Briscoe, Justin Wilson, Tagliani, Wheldon, Raphael Matos, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Danica Patrick, E.J. Viso, Mario Moraes, Graham Rahal, Hideki Mutoh, Mario Romancini, newcomer Bertrand Baguette, Milka Duno and Sato, who came back out after 22 laps in the garage. While Marco had a hard time pulling away from Helio up front, Will Power was able to pick off Simona fairly easily for fifth.
Andretti stayed out front until lap 57 when he pitted for the second time. He came out in fourth, between Dario and Power. Castroneves probably wanted to put the hammer down to extend his lead, but he was quickly stuck in traffic. The other element Team Penske had to consider was that they needed to stay out a few more laps so that the next pitstop could be their last – their car capable of 30 laps at best on a full tank. With 30 to go, Helio was in, coming out 1.8 seconds behind Marco. If Helio could keep the pressure on a bit, he might be able to outlast Marco on fuel. Andretti, for his part, was looking for a yellow. The leaders had reeled in the backmarkers, however, so anything could happen.
With ten to go, it didn't look good for Marco. If the race stayed green, he'd be three laps short on fuel. Behind him, Castroneves (3) and Dixon (9) were likely going to be fine on fuel, so they could just sit back and play the waiting game. On lap 82, Marco finally came in for a splash-and-go. Helio took over the lead with Dixon, Franchitti and Power close behind. Marco had come back out in fifth ahead of Briscoe, Wilson, Kanaan, Conway and Tagliani. Helio was pulling away, but then Simona De Silvestro spun in turn five, bringing out the yellow Marco had been praying for and bunching up the field for the dash to the checkered flag.
The green came out with just two laps to go and when it did, Helio and Dixon each used their overtake buttons to get the most of their Honda powerplants. While exciting, it did nothing to change the results. Helio held on for the win, with Scott Dixon in second, Dario Franchitti holding onto third thanks to that late yellow and Will Power missing out on history but retaining his championship lead with a fourth place finish. While the attention was on Power much of the week, the win went to Castroneves. After his victory lap, Helio jumped out of his car, climbed the fence and celebrated in his usual Spiderman fashion.
Marco Andretti, despite a bit of poor pit strategy, earned fifth with Briscoe, Wilson, Kanaan, Conway, Tagliani, Wheldon, Hunter-Reay, Moraes, Matos, Mutoh, Viso, Rahal, Meira, Patrick, Baguette, De Silvestro, Romancini, Lloyd, Duno and Sato completing the finishing order. Will Power (136 points) keeps his points lead, now ahead of Helio (104) by 32 points, with Dario (94) another 10 points back in third, then Wilson (85), Dixon (80), Briscoe (79), Hunter-Reay (77), Matos (72), Kanaan (64) and Meira (62) rounding out the top ten.
The IndyCar Series now heads to the Streets of Long Beach for the Toyota Grand Prix April 18, a race we'll be covering live.