August 09, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Castroneves Boosts Lead, Kimball Turbocharges Career At Mid-Ohio
Even Helio Castroneves thought it was crazy to think that he would gain points on Scott Dixon in the Honda Indy 200 on Sunday, Aug. 4 at Mid-Ohio. After all, Dixon has been phenomenal at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course since the IZOD IndyCar Series arrived at the difficult, 13-turn, 2.258-mile road course carved out of the Ohio cornfields in Steam Corners – where two Morrow County roads intersect in this bucolic community.
Consider that since 2007, Dixon never had finished outside of the top-five and had four wins at Mid-Ohio compared to Castroneves’ three top-fives and no victories in IZOD IndyCar Series races at the permanent road course.
Castroneves finished sixth, but that was one spot better than pre-race favorite Dixon. That allowed Castroneves to increase his points lead from 29 to 31 over Dixon as the series takes the next two weekends off before arriving at a track that favors Castroneves – Sonoma Raceway for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Aug. 25.
By finishing one position ahead of Dixon at Mid-Ohio, it may prove to be the pivotal race for three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves if he goes on to win his first IZOD IndyCar Series championship.
“If you would have told me we would have finished in the top-10 today, I would have said you were crazy,” Castroneves said. “We made great strategy calls throughout the race. Working with Mr. Penske (team owner Roger) is awesome; he relays great information over the radio. It was a great day for our PPG Automotive Refinish Chevrolet. I know that it was only a sixth-place finish, but it could win the championship at the end of the year. I have said all along that we will continue to do our thing and not change a thing, and it will pay off at the end of the day.”
Dixon entered the Mid-Ohio contest with three-straight wins this season but finished seventh – his first time out of the top-five at Mid-Ohio in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Castroneves started 14th and finished sixth to keep the points lead he has held since the first weekend in June. He could see Dixon’s wide eyes in his rear-view mirror as the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver desperately attempted to pass him in the closing laps of the race.
“I see every bit of it, detail and his eyes like he was saying, ‘I’m going to get you – you Brazilian.’ And I was like, ‘No you’re not,’” Castroneves said. “If somebody had told me I would gain points on Dixon, I would have said you are crazy. That wasn’t because I didn’t have the faith, but I know how tough is this place and Scott Dixon is at this place. From where we started today, I was a little worried about what could happen. But race strategy and the car was awesome. I’m extremely satisfied with sixth place. It sounds like a victory.
“Now, it’s keep going and move forward. This is big for us. Great car, great everything. The car was good, and we were able to show that. In qualifying, we made a mistake but were able to show it in the race.
“For Scott Dixon, this isn’t their first rodeo. They aren’t going to let this bother them, but this day is great to show what we can do, and it is fortunate for us.”
Castroneves did not panic after a poor qualification performance Saturday. The team changed the car and its strategy in the race, which put Castroneves in the right place at the right time to gain points in the championship race.
Entering the race, every time Dixon was reminded of his streak of three wins in a row this season and four wins since 2007 at Mid-Ohio, he kept saying, “You’re jinxing me.”
Afterward, Dixon didn’t blame the performance on any jinxes.
“We stuck with the two-stop strategy too long,” Dixon said. “Typically it’s OK, but with Will Power it was so inconsistent so Charlie (Kimball, race winner) made the right move because the pace was too slow. That put us in a hole, and we reacted the wrong way, and that put us in a deeper hole. From that point on, we were trying to get ourselves out of it, and by that point it was too late. Helio was able to come back and get points. We are still in the hunt, and that is what we have to try to do. It wasn’t the points day we were looking for. We didn’t mix it up enough. The pace was far too slow. We got out of the hole prematurely, and that put us in another hole stuck behind other cars.”
Kimball was able to race his way to victory lane by committing to a three pit-stop strategy on Lap 19. That allowed him to run at a much faster pace than the other competitors in the race, who tried to use a fuel-saving strategy. Dixon was one of those who tried to save fuel, but when the race pace was slower than he expected, he was too deep in the field to get back to the front in time to keep his impressive winning streak from continuing.
For Kimball, the victory in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio was all about “The Journey.”
Diagnosed with diabetes in 2007, Kimball never let that physical condition keep him from his dream of competing in racing. After a solid but unspectacular career in the Firestone Indy Lights series, he earned a ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series when team owner Chip Ganassi decided to expand from a two-car team to four-car operation in 2011. Graham Rahal was the star attraction of the second team, and Kimball was considered an after-thought – overlooked by many race fans. With Novo Nordisk FlexPen as his sponsor, an insulin delivery system, Kimball was considered a spokesperson for diabetes that happened to drive an Indy car.
This year at Mid-Ohio, he became an IndyCar winner who happens to have diabetes.
Kimball’s team came up with a brilliant strategy for the race, thanks to team engineer Brad Goldberg.
Goldberg saw the frontrunners going slow, waited to see the gap on timing and scoring that would allow Kimball to get out to a gap.
“Then I called it,” Goldberg said of Kimball’s first pit stop on Lap 19. “And the guy behind the wheel, that’s the end. I know he has taken some criticism in the past, but today he showed what he can really do.”
Kimball was able to make the strategy work by building large leads before pitting again on Lap 42, which got him just behind the leader, Simon Pagenaud. When Kimball made his final pit stop on Lap 65, he put on the Firestone reds (faster compound tires that are less durable) and once again returned to the race behind Pagenaud.
But not for long.
Pagenaud pitted for the final time on Lap 72 for four red tires and fuel, and he returned to the track just in front of Kimball.
Kimball went wide in Turn 1 but was unable to make the pass. But his dogged determination persevered when he passed Pagenaud in the Esses between Turns 4 and 5.
“Charlie, that move in Turn 4, wow, I never thought he would make it to be honest,” Pagenaud said. “I gave up my lead, but he made it. Hats off to him. It's well deserved when you're making such a move and it works. It's well deserved; it's congratulations to him for such a good job.”
It was also another impressive performance for Honda. Since teams received the latest-generation engine from Honda before the July 7 race at Pocono, Honda is undefeated in IndyCar competition and swept the top three positions at Mid-Ohio.
“Honda has done a fantastic job for Pocono when they introduced the next-generation engine,” Pagenaud said. “The engine has got a the low more power at lower RPMs. So it helps us especially on the road course, the drivability is fantastic. It drives like a normally aspirated engine. Actually on the debrief sheet, there's not much to say anymore, apart from power – a lot more, but they are doing a fantastic job.”
Dario Franchitti’s third-place finish also proves there is plenty of opportunity remaining for him in 2013.
“That was a big step up in the engine,” Franchitti said. “It probably didn't actually show as well as Pocono as far as pure performance of that boost level, but the fuel consumption was pretty good there with the 1-2-3 we got. But they have really improved in a lot of areas we've asked them. A lot of the feedback from car to car and team to team has been very similar in what we've wanted, and the Honda guys have really answered a lot of questions for us.
“We are still pushing; and we still want more, and I think we have seen it. When we make a step, Chevy make a step, and Chevy make a step and just constantly pushing, and that's what this competition is. I think that's one of the reason that Honda and Chevy are around in the sport; not only in power, drive ability, fuel mileage, all that stuff.
“They lengthened the race by five laps this year, but unfortunately for the strategies and stuff, the engines, the fuel mileage, has improved a lot, too. So we found ourselves in that position again, almost being a fuel mileage race.”
Kimball sped away to score his first career win after leading a career high 46 laps. Victory No. 1 came in his 45th career IndyCar Series start.
“We were pretty clear in the race meeting, and I was maybe getting a little frustrated because I knew that if it came down to fuel mileage, I don't know that there's anyone better in the business than Mr. Dixon at saving fuel and running fast laps, and I don't think I could have hit the fuel numbers he was hitting and do the lap times he was doing,” Kimball said. “So when they said, ‘All right, we are going to a three stop, get us while you can,’ I immediately came back on the switches and from running lean to sort of drop the hammer, get right up behind Scott, our window open, and they pitted. I knew when they came out, came out in clean air, I had to run qualifying laps that whole stint. They were giving me lap time targets, and I was doing everything I can to be better than that because I knew the car was that good.
“They could start to see that I think during the middle of that second stint, but the car was just so good, they were giving me a lap time number, and I just had to keep it clean. I had a couple of moments I tried to throw it away, a couple of mistakes, but some of that was in traffic, some of that was just running on the ragged edge to get the gaps I needed to.”
In Saturday morning’s practice session, Kimball crashed the car. But his team was able to prepare a car that qualified fifth and was a winner on Race Day.
Kimball finished 5.5334 seconds ahead of Pagenaud and won at an average speed of 117.825 mph.
Kimball’s victory was based on his Dallara/Honda and its ability to go fast rather than save fuel.
“We looked at it and thought there were two ways to go – conserve or go for it,” said team manager Tom Wurtz. “We thought we had the car for the speed, so we went for it. We thought we had the speed all weekend. It was an option to use, and it looked like everybody else was saving fuel for the start so we said, ‘The heck with it, we’re going the other way.’”
While Kimball’s team was genuinely excited, the driver who made it to victory lane for the first time in his career remained calm and confident.
“We knew that with the speed that we had in the car, if we could run flat out and this place, the way race control is running the races, we had the opportunity to go green all day,” Kimball said. “And you weren't going to get the yellows to make a two-stop work.
“So I think we kind of played it right and made the call when we needed to make the call for the win, but we had it strongly in our mind that we were going to run a three stop race, and it only just solidified that when the guys up front were running slower and slower and slower, and we could go out and make hay when we needed to.”
Just like Kimball’s journey finally got him to Victory Lane, the same could be said about Goldberg.
“I remember in high school, being in the National Honor Society, and true story, on the evening of excellence when you’re getting ready to graduate, they said ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said ‘Be a race car engineer,’” Goldberg said.
Dixon is 31 points behind Castroneves, who has a 65-point lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay. Marco Andretti is fourth in the standings, 76 points back, and Pagenaud is fifth, 103 points out of the lead with five races remaining.
Kimball’s journey has taken him to victory lane. But his journey as an IndyCar Series driver is far from over.
“I think as far as timing, I talked about the growth of not just the team, but also the growth of me as a driver, and I think it's right on the time frame that Chip laid out for us; that we had a clear understanding going into the first year that it was a sort of figure it out, see if the program was going to work,” Kimball said. “And with the expansion program, we knew that the second year, this year, was going to be the year to start winning and start putting the results on the board and start getting inside the top-10 in points.
“To be able to validate those sort of trajectories has been really nice. I think if we get the win or we don't today, I think this year has proven that. Getting a win quiets a lot of voices, for sure, especially voices within myself as a driver. Because as a driver, you'd like to win in your first race, right. That's, again, I don't think any of the drivers up and down pit lane are here to finish second. So to be able to come out and validate it to ourselves is a good thing and I think builds momentum for not just the rest of the season, but the next few years.”
And Kimball has come a long way from when he received the grim news that would forever change his life.
“Getting diagnosed actually in 2007, I remember that day being pretty dark,” Kimball said. “And today is pretty bright.
“So to be now to come five years later and get a race win in what I think is the most competitive open-wheel series in the Americas and probably in the world at the minute is pretty fantastic, especially at a racetrack that I had decent success in Indy Lights, and a fair bit of success in the F2000 championship back in 2003.
“So it's a racetrack that I love, and to be able to come back and come back from that dark day and have so much success and be able to give back to that community like this is very fulfilling and very satisfying.”