Even though Dario Franchitti had a rough go in Saturday night’s Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway, he can at least take pride in showing himself once more as one of the smartest guys in the INDYCAR paddock.
One day previous, he and the rest of the IZOD IndyCar Series drivers came to grips with a new aerodynamic package designed to break up the dangerous pack racing that had been Texas’ calling card for years. The package made the cars tougher to handle, which was something Franchitti and most of his peers had been hoping for.
"I think it will make better racing, too,” said Franchitti, who would finish 14th in the race thanks to handling and grip problems on his car. “I think we're going to see comers and goers [Saturday] night, guys who get their cars right and find a line that works, using the whole track trying to search for grip.
“I think it's going to be unlike any race we’ve ever seen here in a long time."
His prediction would prove rather astute.
With drivers having to cope with less downforce on their machines and struggle with fading tires as their green flag runs wore on, the action was hot throughout the night. Compared to previous races at Texas, there was the same sense of thrill but, without the packs, an added sense of purity to the proceedings.
The white-knuckle moments were still intact, but this time, it was all on the drivers. Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal provided the final conclusion, as Wilson took advantage of Rahal’s brush against the Turn 4 wall with three laps left and drove on to the oval victory he had desperately wanted for both himself and for his car owner, Dale Coyne.
Wilson was elated. Rahal was crushed. But both drivers agreed that the racing was what it needed to be.
“I thought it was fantastic,” said Wilson, who earned his first IZOD IndyCar Series victory since 2009 at Watkins Glen. “People were nervous, but as soon as the cars went on track, everyone calmed down. I think also a lot of credit to INDYCAR and the way they heard everybody's opinion. Everyone got to talk about it, and just talking about it calmed everybody down.”
“Just as a driver, you feel like you can't control your own destiny when you're pack racing, and here, you definitely had to drive the thing tonight,” said Rahal, who battled on after the incident to claim second. “And it's the first time on a mile and a half [track] other than maybe Homestead in 2010 that I've really felt like the driver can make a difference. So I really enjoy that.”
Further back in the field, other competitors were complimentary as well. Will Power, like Rahal, had a late bid for victory go by the boards thanks to a mistake. In the Aussie’s case, it was coming down on Tony Kanaan during a restart at Lap 184; the contact broke Kanaan’s front wing and earned him a drive-through penalty for blocking.
But despite missing out on the chance to win for a second time at Texas, Power was happy about the style of racing.
“I do have to say, that's the best racing I've ever had on an oval,” said Power, who wound up eighth. “The car was moving around, and that's the sort of racing we need at places like this.”
The only driver that didn’t seem too pleased was Ed Carpenter, who finished 12th and said afterwards that he liked TMS as it was prior to the aero changes.
“I know we are all worried about pack racing, but I prefer the way we raced at Texas before,” said Carpenter. “And I may be on an island in that sentiment. Hopefully, the fans enjoyed the race nevertheless.”
No worries about that, Ed. While highly unscientific, a quick look at social media channels after the race revealed high praise for the drivers’ performances as well as the aero package that helped produce a really good show.
As Franchitti predicted, it was a show that was unlike any we’d seen in a long time at this track. But it was one that remained “true Texas,” and that’s what both INDYCAR and its fans needed to see.
“Ultimately, the goal here is to put more butts in the seats out there and more eyes on the TV,” said Rahal. “If racing like this keeps helping it, then I'm all for it.”