The Frontstretch: IndyCar Recap: Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston by Matt Stallknecht -- Monday October 7, 2013

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IndyCar Recap: Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston

Matt Stallknecht · Monday October 7, 2013


In A Nutshell: The Streets of Houston were the site of a doubleheader race weekend for the IZOD IndyCar Series, but the on-track racing was not the main story. A vicious crash on the last lap of Sunday’s Race 2 sent Dario Franchitti to the hospital, injuring 13 spectators and one track worker. Luckily, at press time, no one involved in the incident was critically hurt, but both Franchitti, the track worker, and two of the spectators reportedly stayed overnight at a local hospital for observation. Scott Dixon and Will Power were the two race winners, but the Race 2 incident largely overshadowed what turned out to be a pivotal weekend in the IZOD IndyCar Series title chase.

Key Moment: On the final lap of Race 2, Takuma Sato and Dario Franchitti were fighting side by side through a fast, blind corner when Sato’s car nudged Franchitti’s at a strange angle. Franchitti’s car immediately went airborne and into the catchfencing in a vicious display, one that saw part of Franchitti’s car land on the opposite side of the fence. Franchitti suffered a concussion, two fractured vertebrae, and a broken ankle in the accident, likely spelling the end of his season as he turns his focus to recovering for 2014.

Highlight Reel: – Aside from the Race 2 incident, Helio Castroneves’ suddenly dwindling title hopes were the other big story. In Race 1, Castroneves suffered a transmission issue early in the race which relegated him to a paltry 18th-place finish. In Race 2, mechanical gremlins haunted Castroneves yet again, and he wound up with an even worse finish of 23rd. All told, Castroneves lost his points lead, and now sits 25 behind new leader Dixon.

- Speaking of Dixon, his weekend went swimmingly. Capitalizing on Castroneves’ early misfortunes, in Race 1 he was able to hold off Simona De Silvestro on a late restart to capture the victory. In Race 2, Dixon ran towards the front for the majority of the event, stalking eventual race winner Will Power lap after lap in search of a way around the resurgent Aussie. Dixon fought hard until the white flag, but it wasn’t quite enough, and settled for a second-place finish in Sunday’s event. That being said, Dixon’s weekend was about as close to perfect as he and his team could’ve hoped for.

- Race 1 saw a number of underdogs rise to the top of the pile. While Dixon ran away with the win, late in the going, Simona De Silvestro, Justin Wilson, Simon Pagenaud (who has recently shed his previous status as an underdog) and young Josef Newgarden fought for the remaining spots in the top 5, with De Silvestro and Wilson filling the final two spots on the podium. The street races have been a haven for underdogs this season, and Saturday’s race was certainly no exception.

- Both races were unsurprisingly eventful. The Houston circuit is as uniquely treacherous as they come, and INDYCAR officials had their hands full throughout the weekend trying to keep everything safe. A number of drivers complained before Race 1 that the track was unsafe due to a curb where cars were getting airborne in practice. INDYCAR officials pushed on with the races regardless of such concerns, but not without problems. There were 16 total cautions (seven in Race 1, nine in Race 2) over the two events, and a number of nasty wrecks, culminating in the massive Franchitti incident at the end of Race 2. Series officials will need to take a look at the safety of this circuit going forward in 2014.

- Will Power’s continued resurgence was on full display in Race 2. Power made a number of spectacular passes early in the going, driving all the way from ninth starting position to the lead by lap 7. Power dominated from then on out, holding off a pesky Scott Dixon for the duration of the race and delivering a stunning win. It is abundantly clear at this point in the season that Power has shaken off his early woes and looks to be a serious threat once again in 2014.

- Andretti Autosport’s late-season slide continued this past weekend, and neither of the two races offered much to provide any spark to the suddenly slumping organization. Not a single Andretti car placed in the top 8 in Saturday’s race, and the performance didn’t improve much on Sunday, either. James Hinchcliffe was able to manage a podium finish in Race 2, but he was the only Andretti car to place in the top 10 in that event. Clearly, the magic that this organization had in spades earlier this season has long-since eroded, and changes will have to be sought out if this group does not want to fall behind for 2014.

- Tony Kanaan, who announced this week that he would be heading to Ganassi in 2014, had a rough weekend just days after solidifying his future employment. Kanaan finished 21st in Race 1 due to mechanical troubles; then, he was 24th in Race 2 after getting caught up in an early accident. One has to think he is counting down the days before he officially departs for greener pastures.

- The vicious last lap wreck in Race 2 did not only collect Dario Franchitti. Both Takuma Sato (who started the wreck) and EJ Viso both took hard hits in what would end up being the most horrifying accident of the 2013 season. It is a true testament to how far this sport has come in terms of safety that no one was critically injured in the wreckage.

Notable Driver: Scott Dixon. Dixon has completely owned the second half of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season. There is no other way to put it. Despite driving for a Ganassi team that was clearly at a disadvantage performance-wise, throughout the duration of the year, Dixon has done the unthinkable in rebounding from an early points hole to becoming the championship leader entering season finale. His performance in Houston was emblematic of his season as a whole, as Dixon’s weekend was characterized by him capitalizing on the misfortunes of others. He only needs one more solid race to capture the title, and — given his recent performance as of late — there is every reason to believe that will happen. Expect Scott Dixon to hold the championship trophy once 500 miles are completed in Fontana.

Quotes and Tweets:
“I hope they’re worried.” – Scott Dixon, in reference to his championship rivals, after winning Race 1

“Early in the race, the car was bottoming out in a couple of places and then I just couldn’t shift. It was a helluva job by the Shell and Pennzoil guys to figure out the problem and get me back on track.” – Helio Castroneves after his poor result in Race 1

“A couple cars passed me as I was offline and in Turn 5. I got very loose and Dario and I came together. Hopefully, Dario is OK.“– Takuma Sato on how the vicious accident began on the final lap of Race 2

“What a weekend… congrats to my teammate @12WillPower… let’s go to Fontana and have a good race. Thanks @shellracingus for the support!” – Helio Castroneves (@h3lio) on his weekend

What’s Next: Two weeks from now, the IZOD IndyCar Series will turn its final laps of the season in the MAV TV 500 at Auto Club Speedway. The race will be carried live by the NBC Sports Network and Sirius/XM Channel 211 on Saturday, October 19th at 8 PM EST.

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