The IndyCar Series championship race got tighter in more ways than one Saturday night, ending with the series points leader airborne for the second time in seven days.Tony Kanaan won the Meijer Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway, pulling himself to within 52 points of teammate Dario Franchitti in the IndyCar standings with three races remaining.
Scott Dixon finished second and moved to within eight points of Franchitti, who finished eighth and ploughed into the back of Kosuke Matsuura’s car as the chequered flag waved, but escaped injury as his car flipped and smashed into the wall.
Kanaan, considered to be a longshot for the championship two weeks ago, has won the last two races and turned a two-man race into a three-man race.
“It’s almost like the Indy 500,” Kanaan said. “Before the race, nobody was talking about Dario and Dixon. They were talking about me and (Sam) Hornish and Helio (Castroneves). Look what happened. They finished 1-2. Now they’re all talking about Dario and Dixon, and nobody’s talking about me.
“I like that. I don’t have that pressure. It’s going to be really hard for me to win this championship, but the best thing I can do is keep winning races. From now on, they’re being chased by me.”
Kanaan’s 1.7457 second victory over Dixon capped a wild finish in which Franchitti twice made significant mistakes, Danica Patrick came close to challenging for her first victory before spinning twice and nearly hitting a safety vehicle, and A.J. Foyt IV posted a podium finish, the best of his career, after leading with nine laps remaining.
It also ended a day in which Indy Racing League chief executive officer Brian Barnhart placed all IndyCar Series drivers on probation during the pre-race drivers’ meeting, the group penalty for a harrowing, crash-filled race at Michigan the previous weekend.
“There are still some crazy moves out there,” Kanaan said, referring to a run-in he had with Castroneves. “I don’t know if you saw it, but I touched with a lapped car, or a lapped car touched me. Still, I thought it was much better than Michigan. After Brian put us all on probation, we calmed down a little bit.”
Barnhart said he made the move based on the edgy, dangerous racing at Michigan, in which several hard crashes were causes by questionable decisions and positioning.
“It had been a while since we raced like that from both perspectives,” Barnhart said. “I felt that there was a lack of respect from everybody on the racetrack. I was disappointed in that.
“I was disappointed that we can’t go down a straightaway without guys running into each other. I felt it was perfectly clear that we can’t race that way the last four races of the year.
“As far as I am concerned, they did something out of character and out of line from what we expect of them, so I put them all on probation and told them I was going to make sure we don’t race that way.”
Barnhart’s decision didn’t go over well with some teams and drivers, who were looking for the league to hand down individual penalties for rough driving in the Michigan race.
“Everybody seems to be on probation, yet nothing seems to happen,” Dixon said. “It’s quite strange how the league doesn’t seem to jump on some of these people. I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and I think a few others should be.”
While most of Saturday’s race was clean – except for a mid-race spin by Sam Hornish Jr that took out Dan Wheldon – the conclusion turned sloppy.
Franchitti was racing Kanaan for the lead when he slid high in the marbles and dropped to sixth place on the 168th lap of the 200 lap race. Eleven laps later, as he joined the leaders for green-flag pit stops, Franchitti locked his brakes as he encountered the bumpy surface on pit entry and struck a cone, breaking the front wing on his No. 27 Andretti Green Racing Honda/Dallara and dropping him further back in the field.
Then, as he crossed the finish line unaware that the chequered flag was being displayed, Franchitti slammed into the back of Matsuura’s car, sending the No. 27 car into the air and into the fence. Franchitti was not hurt, but he expressed disappointment in the crucial errors.
“I’m pretty disgusted with myself right now,” said Franchitti, who called out Wheldon for a seven-car crash that sent Franchitti airborne at Michigan. “I made my feelings clear on last week’s incident and where I thought the blame was, but this one was all me.”
One of Franchitti’s teammates also encountered late-race trouble. Patrick was running among the top four when she scooted out of the pits after a fuel-only stop only to spin as she prepared to blend back into traffic. She got the car moving again under caution, but spun again as the flat-spotted left rear tyre blew. She spun into the wall, narrowly missing a safety vehicle on the track.
“I really was lucky I missed the medical truck because I was headed straight for him,” Patrick said. “I was coming out of the pits on hot tires, so presumably I should be pretty fast on pit exit. I was using less throttle than normal on it, but it still spun on me. I blistered the tire so bad that it blew when I tried to get going again.”
That crash helped Foyt, who beat Kanaan out of the pits to take the lead. Shortly after the restart, Kanaan passed Foyt with eight laps remaining, and Dixon quickly followed, but Foyt held off Marco Andretti to finish third. It was Foyt’s best finish and the first top-five of his career; his previous career best was eighth the previous week at Michigan.
“I did struggle my first couple of years in the IRL,” Foyt said. “I’m learning more about these cars set-up wise and learning what I like. This is my first year in the IndyCar Series with an engineer, so that helps a lot.”
Following Andretti to the finish line was Foyt’s Vision Racing teammate Tomas Scheckter, who was running second for a time. Scott Sharp was sixth, Ed Carpenter seventh, Franchitti eighth, Castroneves ninth and Vitor Meira 10th.
When the smoke had cleared and the parts had fallen from the sky, Kanaan and Dixon were the ones gaining the most ground, turning Franchitti’s once comfortable lead into a tight run for the championship.
With a road course (Infineon), a street course (Belle Isle) and an oval (Chicagoland) remaining, the stage is set for a two-against-one battle between Andretti Green and Target Chip Ganassi.
“I want my team to win this championship,” Kanaan said. “Either me or Dario, we need to win this championship. I will do whatever it takes. If I need to help my teammate to do that, I will, and I think vice versa. The focus is to get Andretti Green another championship.”