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Will Road Rage at Sonoma become a Street Fight in Baltimore

The action in last Sunday’s GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma was fierce with many incidents between drivers that included a few comments afterwards that could be best described as “Road Rage.” Now it’s off to the Baltimore for what could turn into the IZOD IndyCar Series version of a “Street Fight” in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Baltimore.

The Labor Day Weekend race at Baltimore is in its third year on the IndyCar schedule and is already a big hit with the drivers and fans. And Helio Castroneves of Team Penske hopes he can do what he did last Sunday at Sonoma, that is keep his cool and score a safe finish.

“I hope so because I said it before that race at Sonoma I would rather be lucky than good, and I’ll take it,” Castroneves said of his seventh-place finish. “That is what we have been doing the whole season. We have been strategic at trying to be smart. The whole thing is helping and I take it.

“I feel that we have made a statement after two years here that we have created a base of fans here. Last year was good with over 100,000 people here for three days. We need to have races like this in this part of the country. There are a lot of cities near here and with that circumstance it’s very important for us to be in Baltimore.”

But even Castroneves had his issues in the race with several drivers at Sonoma.

“I was not happy with some of my colleagues and I was very outspoken about it,” Castroneves said. “In fact, I went to talk to Marco Andretti about it. We were able to put ourselves in the position and Roger Penske made a great call on strategy and we went for it. Some of the other guys were over-driving and we knew when to let up a little bit. Marco and I have talked so everything is cool now. He didn’t see some of the things that happened. Once we were three-wide and I was in the middle.

“The other incident with another driver I let it go because if you start talking to everyone you sound like a Whiney Guy.”

The 12-turn, 2.04-mile street course in Baltimore is unlike the wide expanses of last week’s road course at Sonoma because there are very little runoff areas. If a driver has some incidents with another car in this race, the chances are both could end up in the wall or the tire barriers.

That is why drivers have to be cognizant of potential incidents on the streets of Baltimore.

“Here, it’s very tough -- a street course without much space,” Castroneves explained. “You want to win the race but first you have to finish. So far I hope they take my advice because that is what has worked for us.

“Last year in qualifying we had a little issue, so hopefully we are staying away from that. Because of the weather it was raining and then it was try and that played a lot of tricks on each other. The main thing is to make a better car and also improve in some areas where we were weak last year. Hopefully, we’ll have a fast car this weekend.

“It’s a tough track which is why I enjoy it because you like that challenge of trying to overcome a trough track,” Castroneves said. “In this particular case you want to make it happen.”

Last week at Sonoma, an incident on pit road during the final pit stop of the race involving prime contenders Will Power of Team Penske and Scott Dixon of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing could have a profound effect on the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.

On Lap 63 of the 85-laps race, Dixon was the leader and Power was second when the two leaders came down pit road during a caution period for their final stop of the race with Dixon’s pit box immediately behind Power’s.

Dixon’s crew was first to get out of the pits, but Team Penske right rear tire changer Travis Law lifted the used tire off the ground and moved slowly around the back of Power’s car as Dixon was leaving the pits. It appeared that Law was impeding Dixon’s exit, and when the championship contender clipped the wheel that Law was carrying it knocked the crewmember into several other members of the team.

Per INDYCAR rules any time a crewmember or equipment is hit on pit road it’s a penalty, but this looked like an unusual incident because of the lack of urgency Law showed as he completed his task. INDYCAR Race Control reviewed the situation before assessing a “Drive Through” penalty on Dixon, the race leader on Lap 71.

Dixon, who entered the race just 31 points behind Power’s teammate, Helio Castroneves, dropped from the lead to a 15th-place finish. Castroneves finished seventh so Dixon now trails by 39 points, but would have cut the deficit to single digits if he had not been penalized.

To add to the drama, third-place finisher Dario Franchitti contends Power drove him off the course on the final restart of the race on Lap 82. The two drivers barely acknowledged each other in Victory Lane. That incident combined with what happened to Franchitti’s teammate Dixon led Franchitti to charge Team Penske with “unsportsmanlike behavior” in the post-race media conference.

When Penske was asked about that comment he strongly defended his team.

“I'd love to have Dario here,” Penske said. “As far as I'm concerned, he's off base.  Our guys were doing a job, changing the tires, picked the tires up, got hit by a car from behind.

“You start to get personalities into this, what we're doing running for a championship, it's ridiculous.”

When Penske left the media conference he muttered loud enough for several media members to hear “Dario’s nothing but a big baby.”

It was just another wild Sunday of road course racing on the IZOD IndyCar Series as several drivers were in each other’s faces after the race on pit lane and other drivers left with hard feelings.

And while Power finally scored his first victory of the season and the 19th IndyCar win of his career to become the 10th different winner in 15 races, there are many factors to this race that overshadowed his win, specifically the penalty that was called on Dixon and whether it was his fault or the crewmember for not making an effort to get out of the way.

“Ultimately, we have a duty to protect everybody in the pit lane," said Beaux Barfield, INDYCAR Race Director. "If we have somebody who uses less than great judgment when they leave their pit box and we have an incident, then we have to make a statement by penalizing. And we're going to make that call. There are a couple of different (video) angles, and clearly the 9 car (Dixon) crosses right into the 12 car's space and that's where the violation occurred. He was in the 12 car's box for a good half-car length."

Dixon contends he did nothing wrong and that the review of the incident should have cleared him.

“It looks like he (Verizon Team Penske crew member Travis Law) walked straight into our car,” Dixon said. “You could see where the other car in front of us was pitted and he walked towards us, on purpose.  That’s probably the most blatant thing I’ve seen in a long time. 

“If you watch most pit guys, they try and get out of the way of other people, so that was a bit of a (bad) move right there.  It’s pretty annoying because we had a pretty good Target car all day long, and if they want to try and win like that, then that’s pretty bad.  I had a straight line heading out of the pits and he just walked right into us.  You also look at the calls people make and what they did in Race Control, so I look forward to hearing what that was all about.”

Dixon didn’t believe his car was great, but with proper tire management he was in position to win the race.

“We had a good jump on them coming out and it was strange to see the rear tire man walk straight into our car,” Dixon said. “I haven’t seen bad sportsmanship like that in a long time.

“The championship is still achievable but today we could have cut it down to six. It is what it is and you can’t change that now. We’ll have to race hard and try to win it fair and square.”

Mike Hull is the managing director for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and calls the race for Dixon. He tried to put the entire situation in proper perspective.

“The reason they did what they did is because of the safety of the guys over the wall,” Hull said. “The guys that work on all of our race cars are the most important ingredients we have. In reality, the guy turned his back and carried the tire into Dixon’s sidepod. It has rubber on the top of it. He walked into us. I don’t know what Dixon is supposed to do, but apparently he didn’t do what INDYCAR wanted him to do.

“So does that set a precedent for the next race where a guy can walk into a car like that? I hope that is not the case. The most important thing for us is their guy (Law) is OK. We could talk about what could have or should have, but the guy is OK and that is the most important thing.

“It’s not a protestable offense so we really have no recourse. It’s like dealing with Royalty or the Deity – what are we going to do about it?

“We’ll just go off to Baltimore.”

INDYCAR President of Competition Derrick Walker understood how this penalty could ultimately cost Dixon a chance at a third IZOD IndyCar Series championship, but strongly believes it was the right call.

“It was purely a safety call,” Walker said. “The box is a very dangerous place in the best of times. The crew guy was in his box – granted he could have moved a lot quicker and got himself out of there – but he was still within his box or zone. When there is a championship or not when you hit a crewmember we can’t do anything else with it, really.

“I would say if we could prove without a shadow of a doubt if that crew member was trying to block him (Dixon), or did something deliberate to impede him, we would not have penalized Scott Dixon.

“It’s an unavoidable tight situation that went wrong and he got a penalty. The crewmember was walking across the car – he wasn’t walking out of his box. And Dixon was not steering away from him.”

For the conspiracy theorists, it happened to be Castroneves’ teammate involved in the incident with his closest championship competitor – Dixon.

“You can have that theory but I’m not going there,” Walker said.

And Barfield wouldn’t go there, either.

“In that context when you start taking too many factors into consideration you get in trouble as a race official,” Barfield said. “If I’m going to be sensitive to the fact somebody is running for the championship or leading the race, those are unfair considerations. The reality is if I consider not penalizing that guy because he is in the running for the championship that casts a shadow on that championship because you disadvantage the other guy. I refuse to look at those items when I reviewed this. What kind of statement can we make to keep this pit lane safe? Today there were some items that we responded to that were absolutely what we needed to achieve for pit lane safety.”

Barfield also explained what he saw in reviewing the incident.

“You could see the difference between the Target and Verizon signs on the wall and he clearly went into the 12 car’s pit box and that is where the violation occurred,” Barfield said. “If you look at risks versus reward – the risk of hurting somebody in the pit lane of gaining a couple of tenths leaving pit lane is not a risk worth taking. It’s not something we are going to look away from and not penalize guys.

“Ultimately, that guy was in his own space and for him to have the space – we looked at that, too – but he was as close to the other crew members with the car leaving as he could. It was extremely risky, so I feel good with the decision that we made in trying to keep the pit lane as safe as it could.”

Barfield issued seven penalties in Sunday’s race that featured a race-record seven caution flags for 21 laps of yellow in the 85-lap race. But even such a large number of penalties did not satisfy every driver as many still voiced their displeasure afterwards.

It was obvious that one of the big stories this season was Power’s long winless streak. His last victory came at Sao Paulo in 2012 – 25 races to go.

Here was a driver expected to win a championship, but couldn’t find victory lane until Sunday.

“It’s huge,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. “We needed that as a team and for Will to get the victory is very important. As for Helio, we take it one race at a time and hopefully we end up in the right spot.”

Dixon led the race two times for a race high 27 laps followed by Franchitti, who was at the front of the field for 17 laps. Power led the final 16 laps after he inherited the lead when Dixon had to serve his penalty.

Power’s Dallara/Chevrolet finished 1.1930-seconds ahead of Justin Wilson’s Dallara/Honda. Franchitti was third in another Dallara/Honda with Marco Andretti’s Dallara/Chevrolet fourth and Simon Pagenaud’s Dallara/Honda rounding out the top five.

Oh what a relief it was for Power.

“It is,” last Sunday’s winner admitted. “I'm actually very happy for my guys.  I think we all expected to be a little bit more competitive.  Not that we haven't been, we've just had some bad things happen to us.

“I’m very happy.  I've learned a lot this year.  I've been in the back of the pack.  I've learned a lot about restarts.  When you have a tough year, you really start searching, looking.  You pick up things.  Really feels like next year I'll come back more a complete driver. “

After finishing third Franchitti talked about his icy reaction to Power as the two drivers ignored each other in Victory Lane.

“What the hell is it up to me to repair it for?  I was the victim in that one,” Franchitti said of the incident on the restart. “These things happen.  It's happened before, both ways, whether it was me doing it, Will doing it.  We'll figure it out eventually.

“You know, I'm pretty pissed off right now.  Yeah, Will was pushing hard.  It wasn't some crazy, really mad thing.  But, you know, I was driven off the track and nothing was done about it.  So I'm more mad at race control for not doing anything as usual than I am at Will really.”

Power seemed perplexed his long-time nemesis, Franchitti, had reason to be upset.

“I mean, we barely touched,” Power said. “I'm surprised.  That's just racing.  I'm surprised at his displeasure.  Dixon did exactly the same thing to me when roles were reversed on the first restart.  Dario seems to have a short memory because in Detroit at the first corner, he hit me a lot harder and I lost a bunch of positions.

“It's just racing.  He'll cool down.  Double-file restarts, what do you do?  We're side-by-side.  Cars are going to touch.  It's not like I KO'd him into the wall.”

With the victory, Power moved from 11th in points to eighth. He is 123 points out and remains mathematically in the point’s race, but for all intents and purposes he won’t be the champion in 2013.

This is strange for a man who has been in the thick of the battle for the past three IndyCar championship fights only to fall short in the final race of the season.

“Yeah, in one way it's more relaxing because you can be more aggressive,” Power said. “Like Roger was saying, Helio had to kind of look after himself.  But of course I would love to be in the battle right now.  We just have had one of those years where things don't flow.  But it's slowly coming on here.

“Obviously that’s next year's mindset.  This year is to make sure Helio wins the championship.  We're going to help him any way possible for the next three races.”

And while the incident on pit lane was a huge points swing for Dixon who could have cut Castroneves’ deficit to six points but now trails by 39, Penske downplayed its significance.

“I think the difference, we were (31), now we're 39, so it's (8) points -- not anything catastrophic,” Penske said. “That's racing.  To me, I didn't call it.  I wasn't involved in it.  Obviously when you have a pit crewmember going up in the air...  If you look at it, our pit crew actually lifted the tire up, went behind the car. 

“To me, I think judgment there was made by whoever makes that call.  We certainly didn't.  You know, those are the way things go.”

And the man who continues to lead the title did what he had to do and that was stay out of trouble. He didn’t have a car that was going to win the race so Castroneves brought it home safely in seventh and that puts him in prime position as the series heads to Baltimore for next Sunday’s Grand Prix of Baltimore.

“We tried to do everything that we could,” Castroneves said. “I’m happy that Will (Power) got his win. He was really aggressive and pushing as hard as he could. He deserved it. I’m happy for him and happy to extend the points lead. I can’t believe it. With all that happened to us in the race, I’m extremely satisfied for the Hitachi Team Penske boys.

“Four more to go. Let’s keep going.”
 

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Will Road Rage at Sonoma become a Street Fight in Baltimore
 
Will Road Rage at Sonoma become a Street Fight in Baltimore
The action in last Sunday’s GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma was fierce with many incidents between drivers that included a few comments afterwards that could be best described as “Road Rage.” Now it’s off to the Baltimore for what could turn into the IZOD IndyCar Series version of a “Street Fight” in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Baltimore.
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