Rear View Mirror: Texas race conclusion worth the wait

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The Firestone 600 took so long to complete that two of the drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series field were a year older by the time it ended.

It was worth the wait.

As race winner Graham Rahal said, “It was pretty intense but I'll tell you what, if Texas Motor Speedway fans didn't love that, then they don't love racing because that was by far the best thing we have ever seen here.”

In a winner-take-all battle that saw leader James Hinchcliffe fend off four cars in an often three-wide, wheel-to-wheel slugfest over the final nine laps, Rahal managed to squeeze his No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda past with about 200 yards to go and take the checkers by an incredible 0.0080 of a second over the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda driver.

It was the closest finish ever at Texas Motor Speedway in the race that was suspended due to weather in June, with the action scheduled to pick up Aug. 27 where it left off. Things were so close at the line that No. 10 NTT Data Chevrolet driver Tony Kanaan crossed in third just 0.0903 of second behind Rahal.

The heart-stopping, nail-biting finish all hinged on a series of three late caution periods that helped swing the race in the Rahal’s favor.

Picking up on Lap 72 of 248 Saturday, the Firestone 600 went to Lap 213 without incident and then three fired in rapid succession in 20 laps as the drivers got down to the nitty-gritty on the 1.455-mile oval that has seen plenty of close Indy car finishes in its 20-year history – but none like this.

“Those yellows came out, which was nice because it closed us up,” Rahal said. “I think I had the best car, I just kind of lost touch with Hinch, which sounds funny because he dominated. I just felt like if I could get back to him, I felt like my pace was extremely good.

“On that last yellow (on Lap 232, when Hinchcliffe teammate Mikhail Aleshin spun and collected Jack Hawksworth), I was telling myself this could be my chance, you'd better get it done, and we're just lucky it all worked out.”

It was a bittersweet win for Rahal, who learned after the race that his grandmother passed away as the cars tussled on track.

“Now it all makes sense,” Rahal tweeted Sunday morning. “Highest of highs, lowest of lows. RIP Grandma, thanks for pushing me to victory last night. We love you & miss you!”

For the first 140 laps of the restarted race, it looked like Hinchcliffe would run away with things after he picked up where he left off in June. The Canadian took charge at the front and dominated the proceedings, leading 155 of the 173 laps Saturday night – and led 188 overall – before the cautions got in the way.

“Those yellows at the end just killed us,” a dejected Hinchcliffe said.

“We built the car for long runs, so that first caution, I was like, 'All right, that's unfortunate but it's the last stop, everything should be OK.' We still have 30-something laps to go. And then as (the cautions) kept coming and the laps counted down and down, I knew it was going to be harder and harder.”

The yellows also played a key role in the title fight, as Team Penske teammates and championship contenders Will Power and Simon Pagenaud raced together most of the night. They swapped places six times over the final 100 laps and rarely were separated by more than three positions, with the points seesawing throughout.

The decisive moment in their battle came when Pagenaud unlapped himself in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet just before the final caution came out for the Aleshin-Hawksworth incident.

That move not only put him one lap clear of Power's No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, it also ensured Pagenaud would finish ahead of his closet rival as long as he kept his nose clean in the run to the checkers.

In the end, Pagenaud finished fourth and four spots ahead of Power, which increased his advantage from 20 markers going into Texas to 28 points with only the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (Sept. 4) and the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sept. 18) remaining in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“The Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevy just got better and better all night,” Pagenaud said. “I really thought it was going to come together right at the end when we got back on the lead lap. We were able to come in for tires. Everything nearly came together.

“I think tonight we had a great show. Did you guys enjoy it? I did. I didn’t have any breath left.”

Oh, and in case you're wondering, the two drivers who “aged” in the interim between the start and finish of the race were Gabby Chavez, who celebrated his 23rd birthday July 7, and four-time series champion Scott Dixon, who turned 36 on July 22.


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