[Photo Sources: Ron McQueeney/IndyCar | Rick Dole, Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images]
Rookie Mario Romancini (Conquest Racing) spun and crashed
hard in practice, but was cleared after climbing out of his car unassisted. He would miss qualifying, though, so he started at the back of the 27-car field, just behind Marco Andretti (Team Venom Energy Andretti Autosport) and Dan Wheldon (National Guard Panther Racing), who had their times erased after dipping below the white line ringing the inside of the track. Drivers had been warned that those crossing the line would be penalized.
The battle for the Peak Performance Pole Award went down to the wire, with Scott Dixon (Target Chip Ganassi Racing) holding the lead for the majority of the day, getting nipped at the end of the session by Ryan Briscoe (Team Penske), the next-to-last driver to do a four-lap run. Briscoe closed out the 2009 season with a win and second in two of the final three oval races, so it wasn't too surprising to see him out front. Maybe that Penske advantage would hold for the ovals after all.
Briscoe (No. 6) and Dixon (No. 9) were lined up ahead of Dario Franchitti (No. 10 Suave Target Chip Ganassi Racing) who was sporting new T-Mobile stickers along with his Suave livery. Behind him was the No. 06 of Hideki Mutoh (Formula Dream/Panasonic Newman/Haas Racing), No. 77 Alex Tagliani (FAZZT Race Team), No. 14 Vitor Meira (ABC Supply Co./A.J. Foyt Racing A.J. Foyt Enterprises
), Championship leader Power (No. 12), No. 3 Castroneves, No. 7 Danica Patrick (GoDaddy.com Andretti Autosport), and the No. 24 car of Mike Conway (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing) rounding out the top ten.
Briscoe held his lead from the green, with Franchitti and Dixon close behind. Dixon seemed to have the quickest car of the three though, and soon slipped past Briscoe for the number one spot. Ryan kept charging and soon opened up a six second lead. By the quarter-distance mark, the drivers were starting to make their first set of stops. The top three after everyone had pitted were Dixon, Franchitti and Briscoe, followed by Castroneves and E.J. Viso, who had moved up from sixteenth at the start. It didn't last long though, as a pit lane infraction cost E.J. a stop-and-go penalty and dropped him back down the running order. Vitor Meira inherited fifth, followed by the No. 11 car of Tony Kanaan (Team 7-Eleven Andretti Autosport), Hunter-Reay (No. 37), Tagliani (No. 77), Mario Moraes (No. 32 KV Racing Technology), and Mutoh (No. 06) in tenth.
One name suspiciously absent from the top ten was Will Power, who overshot his pit on the first stop and as a result had some fuel hose trouble. He lost a lap to the leaders in the process, falling all the way back down to 17th. On lap 72, Dixon lapped Danica Patrick (No. 7), leaving just 16 cars on the lead lap. A lap later, E.J. Viso brought out the race's first caution when he got a bit high and brushed the wall hard enough to put himself out for the day. Most of the drivers took advantage of the yellow to pit again, with that caution period resulting in some of the most excitement of the day. Briscoe came out with only three wheels secured and had to return on the next go-around to get a fourth refitted. Takuma Sato (No. 5 Lotus-KV Racing Technology), who had been battling with fellow Japanese driver Hideki Mutoh under green, was squeezed off track by Milka Duno (No. 18 CITGO Dale Coyne Racing), who never saw him as she lined up next to Dan Wheldon (No. 4) behind the pace car.
As they went back to green on lap 84, Dixon was out front with Danica a lap down but stuck between Dixon and second-place Franchitti. The rest of the order went Castroneves, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay (whose team helped him move up four spots during the stop), Tagliani, Meira, Mutoh, first-time-this-season runner John Andretti (No. 43 Team Window World Richard Petty/Andretti Autosport), Moraes, Briscoe, Sato, Rafael Matos (No. 2 HP Luczo Dragon/de Ferran Motorsports), Conway, Marco Andretti, Power, Patrick, Wheldon, the returning-to-the-drivers-seat Sarah Fisher (No. 67 Dollar General/Sarah Fisher Racing), Simona de Silvestro (No.78 Team Stargate Worlds/HVM Racing), Romancini, No. 19 Alex Lloyd (Boy Scouts of America Dale Coyne Racing), No. 22 Justin Wilson (Team Z-Line Designs/ Dreyer & Reinbold Racing), No. 36 Bertrand Baguette (Conquest Racing), No. 66 Jay Howard (Service Central/Sarah Fisher Racing) and Duno. Viso was the lone casualty.
The cars stayed pretty much in that order until the halfway point, although a great battle was going on for fourth between Hunter-Reay, Kanaan and Castroneves. Hunter-Reay started to lose some pace just as Helio and Tony caught the lapped GoDaddy girl. She didn't want to give ground though and held both of them up for several laps, frustrating the heck out of Castroneves in particular. With 91 to go, Helio finally got past her, as did Kanaan, who slipped through rather easily. Tagliani had moved past Hunter-Reay for fifth and was closing in on those two as well.
The second caution came with 81 laps to go, as the endplate off of someone's car was lying in the track instead of attached to his car as it should have been. The trucks went out to sweep the high line as the cars circled behind the pace car, almost everyone diving into the pits as soon as they opened. Everybody was definitely on their push-to-pass buttons as the field went back to green, Dixon still out front followed by Franchitti, Kanaan, Mutoh, Castroneves, Briscoe, Tagliani, Hunter-Reay, Sato and Meira. Only 8 seconds covered the top 12, the only cars on the lead lap, and there was a lot of dicing from third to twelfth up until the three-quarter distance mark.
With about 40 laps to go, the final pit window opened. Dixon had a 2.7-second lead over Dario, with another six seconds covering the gap back to third. The front two were coming up on lapped traffic, though, and still needed to stop. Dixon was one of the last of the front-runners to stop with just 22 to go. As he entered his pit, Jay Howard was into the wall, his first oval run coming to an end a bit earlier than he would have liked. With 20 laps to go, it was going to be a dash to the checkered flag, a tightly bunched field trying to finally get the best of Dixon, who had led more laps on this one day than his whole team had led all season to this point.
As the pace car dropped into the pits on lap 186, the field got back up to speed, but was quickly reigned in again as Hideki Mutoh and Takuma Sato clipped each other, both sailing up into the wall. It appeared that Sato had moved up on the high side of Mutoh just as Simona de Silvestro edged Hideki a bit higher up the track. Sato was well back and in Mutoh's blind spot, the contact unavoidable for either of them. Another hard-luck race for Sato.
More laps reeled off under yellow, several drivers having at least a couple of push-to-passes left, giving them the best chance of getting past Dixon once they went back to racing. Of course Dixon had 17 left to use. The one car that seemed capable of getting the best of Dixon was the No. 10 car of Dario Franchitti. Dario had been right on Dixon's tail most of the day, but was now in third with Helio Castroneves and several lapped cars between them. Dixon cruised to the win, and Dario held off the hard-charging Tony Kanaan, who swept past Castroneves and almost caught Dario as well, thanks to the lapped cars ahead of Franchitti.
The final finish order went Dixon, Franchitti, Kanaan, Castroneves, Hunter-Reay, Briscoe, Moraes, Tagliani, John Andretti, Meira, Patrick, Power, Marco Andretti, Conway, Wheldon, Matos, Fisher, Wilson, Lloyd, Baguette, De Silvestro, Romancini, Muth, Sato, Howard, Duno, Viso.
Will Power maintains his overall championship lead, with Scott Dixon 26 points behind him, followed by Helio, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dario, Justin Wilson, Briscoe, Knaan, Meira and Matos completing the top ten. Next up is the grandaddy of them all, the Indianapolis 500 on May 30.