ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – For nine long years, Verizon IndyCar Series teams, drivers and fans had longed to see Indy cars return to historic Road America.
On Sunday, the record crowd got its wish as the 22-car field took to the 4.014-mile permanent road course in the KOHLER Grand Prix. The grateful fans were treated to an exhilarating finish that saw 2014 series champion Will Power climb another rung on the all-time Indy car victory list.
Power, one of nine drivers to have previously raced Indy cars at the circuit, started from the inside of the front row after winning the Verizon P1 Award on Saturday. The driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet made a difficult task appear easy as he held off Tony Kanaan (No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet) and Graham Rahal (No.15 Gehl/D-A Lubricant Honda) in the closing laps to claim his second straight victory of 2016 on the heels of the second race at Belle Isle Park earlier this month.
“So stoked, man. I know TK, he had the reds (alternate tires) on. He was coming hard,” said Power, whose 27th career win passed Rodger Ward and tied Johnny Rutherford for 13th on the all-time Indy car win list. “He was quick all race, so I had my work cut out but, man, I just did everything I could to stay ahead. So stoked to get the Verizon car in victory lane. … I needed that one.”
Power missed the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with an inner-ear infection but now sits third in the championship standings, 81 points behind teammate Simon Pagenaud.
“Obviously the start of the year was very tough for me. I couldn't train in the off-season, didn't do the first race. I usually turn up for the season very fit. This year I turned up way off where I normally am. I've got my normal energy back and I can perform like I normally do, and that's the difference.”
Kanaan, who ran in the top five of every practice session and qualifying segment of the weekend, started third and battled up front all 50 laps on the 4.014-mile permanent road course with the likes of Rahal and Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet).
The lone caution came on Lap 40 when Conor Daly’s No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda for Dale Coyne Racing suffered a left rear suspension failure and crashed in Turn 1. Daly was unhurt but the incident packed up the field for what would be a six-lap, green-flag dash to the finish.
Kanaan restarted third, passed Pagenaud for second on Lap 46 and trimmed Power’s 2.5-second lead to a half-second. He took the white flag under Power’s gearbox, but with two fewer push-to-pass activations left, the Brazilian couldn’t make the move for first place.
“We were on the right strategy,” said Kanaan, who finished runner-up by 0.7429 of a second, his first podium since Auto Club Speedway last year. “I thought we had a car to fight for the win, but in the last lap when they told me (Power) had three push-to-passes and I had to use two to hold Graham up, I'm like, ‘I'm toast.’”
“We needed that,” said Rahal, who finished third in his previous Indy car race at Road America, for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in 2007. “I think we had a really good car. Particularly on the new reds our car was really nice, and at the end there it was also pretty good. We tried our best.”
While the results showed strong for those three, others expected to contend for the win were not so fortunate. Among them was Pagenaud, who came into the race with an 80-point championship lead and started fourth. An engine issue in the closing laps saw him drop from second to 13th when the checkered flag fell.
“We were having a really good day,” said Pagenaud, “but unfortunately we had a little issue with the engine. We had the Menards Chevy hunting for the win. We had a really good race going in this wonderful setting at Road America. “
Pagenaud lost out on a chance to stretch his championship lead, which shrank from 80 points to 74, with seven races remaining. “It’s tough when you have an opportunity and you can’t maximize it in the championship. It’s a tough day today, but we’ll bounce back.”
Also dealing with frustration were four-time Indy car champions Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon, who were both dealt early blows in the race. KVSH Racing’s Bourdais, who won the last Indy car race at the Wisconsin circuit in 2007, drew contact on the first lap and was forced to pit his No. 11 Team Hydroxycut Chevrolet to replace the rear wing assembly. The stop put Bourdais a lap down and ended his chances at winning back-to-back races at Road America nearly a decade after his first. Bourdais finished 18th.
After starting on the outside of the front row, Dixon’s No. 9 Clorox Chevrolet slowed down the front straightaway and came to a rest at Turn 5. He was unable to continue and finished 22nd.
“Not real sure (what happened),” Dixon said, who fell from second in points to fifth. “Just exiting Turn 5, I don’t know if it was a header or something expired and then there’s just no power. Eventually I think it caught something on fire to take out the rear brakes. Definitely a bummer.”
If there was a common theme of the weekend, it was drivers and fans loving Indy cars back at the “National Park of Speed.” Drivers lauded the track and atmosphere all weekend, and the fans responded with a turnout that impressed track president George Bruggenthies.
“This is likely the largest event ever hosted by Road America,” said Bruggenthies, “so that’s really something.”
The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to oval racing in two weeks’ time with the Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway. Qualifying on July 9 is at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, with race coverage the following day on the same outlets at 5 p.m. ET.