Under a gloomy sky, and with 40 percent chance of rain around the 8pm mark, the Genesys 300 got underway 35mins early as IndyCar attempted to squeeze it into the TV window – and without pushing back the first race of this double-header.
With qualifying having been canceled due to rain delaying practice, championship points ensured Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda led the field to the green, ahead of Team Penske-Chevrolet’s Will Power, Scott Dixon (Ganassi), Colton Herta (Andretti Autosport-Honda), Simon Pagenaud (Penske) and Jack Harvey (Meyer Shank Racing).
Palou made a superb start allowing Dixon to follow him through into second ahead of Power, and on Lap 3 Dixon took Palou around the outside of the front straight kink to take the lead. Harvey had displaced Pagenaud for fifth, while AJ Foyt Racing-Chevy’s Sebastien Bourdais ran second ahead of the Ed Carpenter Racing-Chevy of Rinus VeeKay, Takuma Sato of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing-Honda, and Marcus Ericsson’s Ganassi car completing the Top 10.
Speaking of Ganassi, Tony Kanaan – the fastest man in practice – moved his #48 entry up four places in the opening 10 laps but he soon discovered he was on the limiter in fifth and struggling to get into sixth.
Dixon was leading by 0.3sec from Palou by Lap 20, with Power hanging 1sec back, taking care not to cook his tires in the dirty air of the car in front, and behind him Herta did the same. With the race possible in three stops, drivers were having to nurse their Firestones – some as early as Lap 25 – as they started vibrating due to wear rather than blisters.
Past lap 40, the leaders strung out more, Dixon now running over a second ahead of Palou who in turn had almost 3sec over Power who was a similar distance ahead of Herta, and they were already running some 8mph off their best lap times – from 215 down to around 207.
Graham Rahal ducked his Rahal Letterman Lanigan-Honda ducked into the pits on Lap 50, and that triggered an exodus from the racing surface. The yellow flew on Lap 56 as Bourdais’ was tagged by Josef Newgarden exiting Turn 2 as Bourdais reacted to Herta slowing for the pits. The impact sent the Foyt driver hard, backward, into the outside wall. He was checked at the infield medical center, released and cleared to drive in tomorrow’s race.
Those who had yet to stop and couldn’t while the pits were closed, included Dixon, Palou, Harvey, Herta, VeeKay, Newgarden, Alexander Rossi (Andretti), Scott McLaughlin (Penske), series returnee Pietro Fittipaldi, Kanaan, Ed Jones (Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan), James Hinchcliffe (Andretti), Dalton Kellett (Foyt) and Felix Rosenqvist (Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet). They were allowed in on Lap 64, and those who had pitted under green, before the yellow, found themselves shuffled down the order. Most prominent of these was Power, now in 12th.
Dixon and Palou were able to resume in a Ganassi 1-2 ahead of Herta, Harvey, Rossi. Newgarden was moved to the back of the pack as punishment for avoidable contact.
With much of the field having flip-flopped as a result of the yellow, Kanaan was suddenly a factor on the Lap 71 restart, moving up to seventh from ninth, as teammates Dixon and Palou escaped from Herta up front.
Harvey in fourth kept the pressure on Herta as semi-teammate Rossi trailed him but stayed ahead of McLaughlin who now found himself as Penske’s lead runner. Another person to benefit was Fittipaldi, who restarted 11th and made it up to 10th when Rosenqvist passed VeeKay for ninth and the Dutchman lost momentum as he understeered up the track. Power, by contrast, lost out to both Ericsson and O’Ward soon after that first restart and fell to 14th.
Rahal and O’Ward were the first to make scheduled second stops at the Lap 110. Leader Dixon went to Lap 126 before making his second stop, leaving Palou up front ahead of Fittipaldi and Power as the rest of the leaders ducked into pitlane. Power gave it just one more lap, Palou two more and Fittipaldi three more.
No one who stayed out long, turning laps of 204mph when the best cars were able to run up to 218 (depending on traffic), inevitably got jumped during the pitstops. Dixon’s lead over the next best car was 3.4sec, whereas Rosenqvist who’d pitted on Lap 118 was up to second for Arrow McLaren SP. Behind him ran McLaughlin, while Palou was down to fourth, just ahead of O’Ward, Ericsson, Herta, Harvey, Rossi and Rahal. By contrast Fittipaldi and Power had tumbled to 17th and 18th.
Rosenqvist moved to within half a second of Dixon at Lap 150 as they picked their way through traffic, while McLaughlin moved in on the Swede ahead, briefly obliging him to defend the inside line.
Then Hinchcliffe lost it in the dirty air behind Rosenqvist as the Arrow McLaren SP lapped him, he slid on the long ‘PJ1’ patch on the track between Turn 1 and 2 and made heavy left-rear contact with the SAFER barrier on the outside of Turn 2.
The field dived for the pits as soon as it opened, and Dixon emerged in front, but now McLaughlin was his nearest challenger for Rosenqvist had fallen to 12th after a slow stop and then being slowed on exiting his box as his compatriot Ericsson was even more unlucky. The Ganassi #8 was sent on its way without the right-rear wheel fully tightened and the had to be dragged back to its pitbox where it took a long time to rectify the problem.
Behind Dixon and McLaughlin at the restart would be O’Ward and Palou, with Herta having fallen to fifth during the pitstop exchange, ahead of Harvey, Rossi, Newgarden, Rahal and Pagenaud. In the mean time, Hinchcliffe had been checked and released from the medical center.
The Lap 174 restart saw Dixon sprinting away from McLaughlin and O’Ward, while Newgarden and Rahal deposed Harvey, despite the Meyer Shank car making a heavy defense against the RLL driver. Rahal kept on charging and on Lap 180 went around the outside Newgarden to grab sixth.
The drama wasn’t over yet. On Lap 191 Herta had to duck into the pits with a problem that was causing his right-rear brake to catch fire. The St. Petersburg winner was done for the day.
Dixon resisted the pressure from McLaughlin to score his fifth TMS win, the 51st of his career – just one behind Mario Andretti – and took the lead of the championship.
O’Ward finished 1.5sec down to claim the first podium of the season for Arrow McLaren SP, and move up to fourth in the championship, ahead of Palou who scored his best oval finish and slip to second in the points race.
Newgarden salvaged sixth behind the charging Rahal.