Castroneves victorious; title race tightens

By Dave Lewandowski

MOTEGI, Japan – Japanese fans’ exuberance and motorsports knowledge is cited by IZOD IndyCar Series drivers as one of the reasons they enjoy the annual Indy Japan 300 race weekend.

Both were apparent when spectators began to congregate at the fencing facing the pit lane stage 10 laps before Helio Castroneves crossed the finish line. The race winner didn’t disappoint the swelling grandstand section after climbing from the No. 3 Team Penske car, waving his arms to elicit a louder cheer before scaling the safety barrier.

Moments later, out of breath but not lacking high spirits, Castroneves rattled off almost as many thank yous to individuals who contributed to his second consecutive victory and second at Twin Ring Motegi from the pole as gifts he received.

“Team Penske is about execution and they gave me a fantastic car,” said Castroneves, who gained a position on teammate Ryan Briscoe on a Lap 118 pit stop under yellow to take the lead for good. “Every time I wanted to go for it, the car was responding.”

Castroneves led 153 of the 200 laps to pass Sam Hornish Jr. as the IZOD IndyCar Series career leader and posted his 23rd Indy car racing victory (tying Tommy Milton for 15th on the all-time list).

“It’s always a tough race here,” he continued. “I trusted my car and trusted my team, which did a great job in the pits.”

In Castroneves’ wake, Dario Franchitti beat Will Power to the finish line by 0.4997 of a second to claim second place and close the championship points gap to 12 heading into the season finale Oct. 2 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Briscoe, who started second, finished fourth and Danica Patrick advanced seven positions to fifth in the No. 7 GoDaddy car for Andretti Autosport. Teammates Tony Kanaan (seventh) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (ninth) were joined in the top 10 by Newman/Haas Racing’s Graham Rahal, who moved up eight positions to eighth, and Dan Wheldon of Panther Racing.
“I was really the only person that could mix it up with Ryan and Helio all day,” said Franchitti, who secured the inaugural A.J. Oval Championship Trophy. “Helio was just in a class of his own in terms of sheer speed, but we could get him on the restarts occasionally. I was fighting as hard as I could with those guys. Will’s guys did a great job in the pits and got him back up into contention.”
Power, whose No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car dropped to 10th on Lap 40 when he lifted off the throttle upon hearing a phantom “yellow” radio transmission, jumped two positions on the final pit stop (Lap 151) and overtook Briscoe for third 17 laps later. He ran down Franchitti in the closing 10 laps (trailing by 0.3246 of a second on Lap 190), but wasn’t able to get past the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing entry.

“I didn’t get to see Helio much. He was gone,” said Power, who recorded his highest career oval finish. “I had a good (first) experience at Motegi; I know how to run in traffic now. I’ve never finished ahead of (Franchitti) on an oval and one day I’ll get it. Hopefully, this year because if I don’t he’ll win (his second consecutive title).”

Added Franchitti, who was in a similar position heading to Homestead-Miami Speedway last October: “We can only control what we do and we did our best.”

Though he gained 53 points for the victory (including bonus points for the pole and leading the most laps), Castroneves and sixth-place finisher Scott Dixon were eliminated from title contention. The “what-if” of a potential victory at Edmonton that was negated by a blocking penalty (the loss of 30 points that would have kept him in the chase) might sting, but there’s still a team goal.
“We still have a job to be done to win the championship for Team Penske,” he said.


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