Dan Wheldon of Andretti Green Racing started the fourth annual SunTrust Indy Challenge behind 19 other drivers Saturday night after qualifying 20th in the 22-car field.
But thanks to a risky fuel strategy called for by his team manager, Tony Cotman, Wheldon finished in front of everyone in a thrilling race that featured three lead changes, seven cautions and a controversial finish.
Wheldon made an early pit stop, well before most of the field, during the race's first caution, and he made his last pit stop during Lap 129 of the 250-lap race. He then trusted Cotman's call that he could make the final 131 laps on the three-quarter-mile track on the same tank of fuel. It was a good gamble, and Wheldon celebrated by doing donuts in the frontstretch of the track after his victory lap.
"You never know with him," Wheldon said of Cotman. "The guy's crazy, but look at him. He pulls it off today."
The victory was Wheldon's second this year and the fourth this season for the Andretti Green team. But it might not have happened if the race had been a few laps longer. Asked how much fuel he had left at the end of the race, Wheldon said: "I think it was enough for a lot of donuts. Ever since I've joined this team and had [Cotman] call my race, I never think there was a race where I've come in with a lot of fuel. I'm sure it was minimal."
The race appeared to have a thrilling conclusion, but approximately 90 minutes later, it was disallowed. The last of seven cautions came at Lap 246, when the cars of Greg Ray and Ed Carpenter collided in the backstretch. Race officials scrambled to clear the track and provide one final lap of racing, and the green flag came out with one lap to go, ostensibly setting up a one-lap shootout among leader Wheldon, Vitor Meira and Helio Castroneves, who were in second and third place, respectively.
Castroneves, who won the race's pole Friday night and led for the first 37 laps, made an aggressive charge during the final lap, passing Meira and getting close to Wheldon. But while the green flag was waved, yellow caution lights on the inside of the track were not turned off. Because of the confusion, Brian Barnhart, the senior vice president of operations for the IRL, announced the passes in the final lap would be disallowed and the order of finish would be that which it was under the final caution, with Wheldon winning, Meira in second and Castroneves in third.
The SunTrust Indy Challenge has been one of the most unusual and exciting races in the IRL season, and, despite the technical error that disallowed the finish, Saturday night was no different. It is one of only three IRL races run at night, and Richmond's D-shaped oval is the shortest on the series schedule. It is 1.75 miles shorter than the 2.5-mile track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of the Indy 500, and drivers have compared it to a roller coaster and a bullring. Wheldon said when he first pulled up to the raceway last year, he thought it was a go-kart track.
This year's race was the fastest ever on the track thanks to a freshly paved surface that smoothed out bumps, especially in Turn 2. On Friday, 11 of the 22 cars broke the course qualifying lap record set in 2002 by Gil de Ferran. On Saturday, Sam Hornish Jr. had the fastest lap, 15.9368 seconds, more than a second faster than the record set by Buddy Lazier two years ago.
The improved track also allowed for more side-by-side racing. In one thrilling sequence, Castroneves caught up to then-leader Hornish in Lap 108, and the two Team Penske cars made nearly an entire lap next to each other. The pair went between two lapped cars just out of Turn 4, and for a moment, there were four cars side by side down the frontstretch.
The short track also made for more traffic, especially as the leaders lap the end of the field. The seven yellow flags forced a combined 74 laps to be run under caution.
Dario Franchitti of Andretti Green Racing and Hornish led the race for 78 and 76 laps, respectively, the most of any of the drivers. But both saw their chances at victory evaporate in collisions near Turn 2.
Franchitti took the lead on Lap 114 thanks to a quick pit stop during the third caution. He led for 18 laps, fell behind Ed Carpenter for a lap, but retook the lead and held it until Lap 193, when Wheldon went in front during the fifth caution.
Attempting to make a move during Lap 222, Franchitti's front right tire collided with rookie Mark Taylor's car just after Turn 2 and sent Taylor into the wall. Franchitti immediately reported no damage and was able to continue, but he had lost too much ground. He finished 12th.
Hornish fell out of contention in Lap 188. Just after Turn 2, Hornish's left rear tire clipped Tomas Scheckter's right front tire, and Hornish spun into the wall. Hornish was able to continue, but by the time his car was ready to race, he had lost four laps to the leaders.