[Images: Donald Miralle, Tom Pennington, Jonathan Ferrey and Robert Laberge | Getty Images]
First out of the box was Helio Castroneves (No. 3), who put up a decent 214.411-mph speed, but it was below the highest practice speeds of the day and didn't look to hold up long as the top time. Ryan Briscoe (No. 6) was the next big name expected to challenge for the pole and he didn't disappoint. Helio's Penske teammate, Briscoe cranked out a 215.273 to move him to the top of the charts. After stepping out of the car, it became a waiting game for Ryan as he sat back and watched as driver after driver made a run at P1.
Will Power (No. 12) and Scott Dixon (No. 9) also made it into the 215 range, but couldn't quite catch Briscoe, who wasn't much of a surprise out front as he had sat on the pole in the last oval race before Indy, the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway. A few more runs were made but it wasn't until Dario stepped up that another serious challenge arose. His first lap was a 215.6, enough to get him to the top if he could maintain that pace, but his speed tapered off over the next three laps to the point where his final average was just 0.012 mph behind Briscoe. Ryan held on for his ninth career IndyCar pole, with Dario second and Power third. As the PEAK Perfomance Pole Award Winner, Ryan Briscoe picked up an extra $10,000, but the big money lay ahead in the 2010 Firestone 550 on Saturday night.
Race day was hot and humid, but temps were expected to drop as the sun went down over the 1.5-mile high-banked oval. Texas had produced some of the closest race finishes in IndyCar history and with a few teams finally cracking the Penske/Ganassi/Andretti stranglehold in qualifying, it was going to be an interesting race. The field looked well formed as the pace car dropped away for the start, but one car was out of formation so it was a no-go. A few drivers near the front used their push-to-pass buttons at the anticipated green though, possibly robbing them of one last spurt at the end of the race. Everyone took one more lap around before the green finally flew.
Holding the race so late in the day created one interesting spectacle for fans – the bumpy track surface really showed when the heavily-laden cars threw showers of sparks as they bottomed out coming around the turns. Another fun spectacle added to the track this year was a football field in the infield along the front stretch. For years, the announcers have tried to convey just how fast these cars are traveling by telling us that they can cover the distance of a football field in less than a second. Now we could actually see that factoid in action as the pack circled at better than 210 miles per hour. Oh, those wacky Texans.
The first 40 laps were relatively uneventful. The front of the field still looked like the starting grid, with the lone exception of the hard-charging Danica Patrick. She appeared to have a perfect setup for the race, able to pass high or low at will it seemed. By Lap 40 she was already up to fourth and knocking on the door for third. On Lap 42, a few drivers were already starting to make their first stops, praying there wouldn't be a yellow anytime soon. Of course, on Lap 46 there was
a yellow and the whole field seemed to come in as soon as the pits opened.
Coming back out it was Dario Franchitti up front, followed by Power, Patrick, Dixon and Briscoe, who came into the pits a bit askew, costing him a few precious seconds and putting him in fifth awaiting the return to green. When they went back to green, the leaders were well bunched, any one of them looking capable of leading at the end. A few laps later, Takuma Sato was up into the wall, bringing out another yellow. The replay seemed to show something going down at the right rear just as he crossed over the bumps. He appeared unhurt and after cleaning up the debris, the field was back to green on lap 67.
The side-by-side racing that ensued was some of the most nerve-wracking action we've witnessed in some time, as in-car cameras showed drivers coming within an inch of each other as they bumped around the oval at 210 mph. Crazy. The battle between Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan was particularly close, as Tony kept charging up from his 13th place starting position. When Wheldon had to back off momentarily during their dicing, it was all E.J. Viso needed to slip between them. Entering the second pit window on lap 86 it was Franchitti, Power, Briscoe, Dixon and Patrick pulling away from the rest of the pack.
On Lap 99, Simona De Silvestro was into the wall, an oil or other fluid line break causing massive orange flames to sprout all along the right side of the car. As her number 78 Dallara came to rest on the apron, it took far too long to extract her from the car. The restraints weren't cooperating and the fire extinguishers weren't being used; it was pretty scary to watch. When Simona was almost completely free, one of the workers had to tug on her to bring her up and out, which looked just as painful as the flames licking at her from the now-burning bodywork. She was on her feet though, prompting the announcers to speculate that she at least didn't seem to have any broken bones from the crash. As unfortunate as it was for her, it was the perfect time for everyone to pit.
While the whole field seemed to come in for their second stop, Ryan Hunter-Reay lost a lot of time as he had trouble getting lined up correctly into his pit box. He ended up taking tires but no fuel as the hose couldn't reach. He dropped back to the rear of the field after having moved up to 12th before the incident. At that point, the running order was Franchitti, Power, Briscoe, Dixon, Patrick, Kanaan, Wheldon, Viso, Castroneves and Scheckter in the top ten spots, but Wheldon was back in while the field circled under yellow, feeling like there was some debris under his car. The team had him come in to inspect it and they seemed to apply a tape patch to the bottom of the car before sending the series points leader back out.
Back to green on Lap 112 and a couple of laps later the field was at the halfway point of the race with Franchitti out front, immediately followed by Briscoe, Dixon, Patrick, Kanaan and Wheldon. A scary spin shortly thereafter involving Baguette, Castroneves and Moraes on Lap 130 put the latter two out while Bertrand was able to limp around to the pits with one wheel pointing skyward, like the pinkie of a dainty tea drinker. Moraes apparently didn't see the charging Helio on the high side, pushing the sometime dancer up into the wall. As the two spun towards the infield, Baguette just about managed to thread the needle between them, clipping Helio as he shot through. Unfortunately, the damage was too great to repair and the young Frenchman was out for the day as well.
It was another pit opportunity for the field and again Dario came out at the sharp end of the pack, followed by Dixon, Briscoe, Patrick and Viso. Around that time Simona emerged from the medical center, amazingly nonchalant about the burns on her right hand. She seemed unfazed, hoping to be ready for Iowa in two weeks. As the gang returned to green, it became apparent that several drivers had stayed out. Alex Tagliani was one of them, taking advantage of the situation to score a few laps led before he had to pit as well on Lap 167. Power was in for his next stop as well a few laps later, which made the top five Briscoe, Patrick, Andretti, Dixon and Viso.
When Briscoe seemed to get light in the front end on lap 183, Danica made a play for the lead, but just couldn't pull it off. Sheckter was one of the first to make his final stop around lap 186, Tomas filling in for the injured Mike Conway. Marco and then Danica were in soon after, followed by Briscoe on 191. Patrick had a head of steam and flew past Briscoe as he was getting back up to speed. She had a hard time holding it though, as Ryan fought back and stayed on the high side of her until an overtake button activation shot him ahead. Power was in third followed by Marco Andretti, Dixon, Franchitti, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Viso, Lloyd, Meira, Wheldon, Mutoh, Scheckter, Tagliani, Wilson, Fisher, Matos and Romancini.
With ten to go, Briscoe was still a second ahead of Danica, with the others another two to five seconds behind them. Fuel didn't seem to be a concern for the leaders besides Will Power, although Alex Tagliani had to stop with seven to go for a splash. Then Will answered those questions by stopping three laps later.
That's about the time Briscoe put the hammer down, drawing further away from Patrick and staying out front until the checkers flew. Danica held on for second followed by Andretti, Dixon, Franchitti, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Lloyd, Wheldon, Meira, Viso, Mutoh, Scheckter, Power, Fisher, Matos, Romancini, Tagliani, Wilson, and the non-finishers.
So Penske was back on top, Briscoe got a much deserved first win of the season, Danica showed she can really contend and Dario became the series points leader by three over Will Power. They head to Iowa next for the Iowa Corn Indy 250 on June 20.