Nature jolts Munoz into Race 1 winner's circle

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — Rain and lightning proved to be the great equalizers in the IndyCar series Saturday afternoon on Belle Isle, aiding to Carlos Munoz's first career win in a Honda for Andretti Autosport in Race No. 1 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader.

Munoz was leading his teammate Marco Andretti by nearly 30 seconds just before lightning forced a red flag after 47 laps of the scheduled 70-lap event on the 14-turn, 2.3-mile road course. The race never resumed, giving the 23-year-old Colombian his first victory to push him to 10th in the points standings.

Drivers competing with Chevrolet power had won five of the first six races this season and also owned the top three starting positions Saturday, all by Team Penske drivers with defending series champion Will Power on the pole.

It wasn't long ago when Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay won the series championship (2013), but that was when the team competed with Chevrolet power. This was the team's first win this season.

"I would have liked to win with 100 percent of the laps, but a win is a win," Munoz said in the post-race press conference held indoors. "I want to thank my engineers for the strategy and a great result for the team with a 1-2 (finish).

"We knew before the race it would be a hard race because of the weather. I had the fuel to go laps longer. I pitted three laps later than my teammate and then it started to rain a lot."

Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske finished third in a Chevrolet, followed by Power and Scott Dixon (Chevrolet) of Chip Ganassi Racing.

Marco Andretti made a gutsy call which turned out to be the strategic move of the race, tossing aside his rain tires for slicks on Lap 9 with it still raining. He gained valuable time as the track dried out. Munoz soon followed with the same move.

Ultimately, Andretti had to pit one more time on Lap 40, allowing Munoz to stay on the track and take the lead while building a considerable gap over his competitors.

"I wanted to come in and get slicks on early on and I guess the consensus on the timing stand was the opposite, but I said, 'The guys better be ready,' and to me it wasn't a gamble," Andretti said. "I was ready to go to the slicks and I thought the track was there and I knew there was still going to be a couple of laps under yellow before we went green and the concrete dries quick.

"That's where it started, it was sort a blessing and a curse and that's where I lost the race too because he (Munoz) was able to stay out a couple of laps after me, run a couple of laps more than me and that was a bummer."

Car owner Michael Andretti, Marco's father, was proud of his drivers.

"He was on a strategy of three laps later and when Marco had to pit, he had to put on rain tires because we saw rain coming and in those three laps he was able to put in 10 seconds a lap, that's how big a difference there is between the tires and that won him the race," said Michael of Munoz. "In the end, it was really Marco's call that got the whole ball rolling for the whole field and that was the difference for us, then Carlos went to school on that and took it one step further because they were a little later in the call which actually worked to their advantage. I told him (Munoz) to own this win because he didn't make a mistake and brought it home. I'm happy for him."

Munoz's previous best career finish was a runner-up spot to Tony Kanaan in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 in his series debut with Andretti Autosport. He was definitely the surprise winner Saturday, starting 20th after qualifying at 103.83 miles-per-hour, nearly eight mph slower than Power Friday. He was 13th fastest in practice Saturday morning.

Another driver with Honda power looked strong from the start.

Takuma Sato showed he would be a factor. After starting fourth in the No. 14 ABC Supply Honda for A.J. Foyt Racing, Sato passed Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, then Helio Castroneves to take second on the second lap.

Then, Sato went after Power, overtaking him to grab the lead on Lap 3.

Sato continued to hold the lead until a strategy move had him go from rain tires to slicks. He made contact with Josef Newgarden on Lap 19, having Newgarden crash into the wall while Sato suffered front left side damage, ending his chance at a win.

The race had several cautions before it was one-third through, including one on Lap 6 when Kanaan and James Jakes were among drivers going three-wide into Turn 1, resulting in Kanaan and Jakes making contact. Kanaan went into the tire barrier and with no place to go Graham Rahal's No. 15 Steak & Shake Honda slammed into Kanaan, ending his day.

"There was literally no hope," Rahal said. "It's impossible to see right now and you've got to be smart out there and be really cautious. Actually the car was really good in the rain. I was just being super cautious and unfortunately it bit me."

Charlie Kimball went in the pits on Lap 10 to put on slick tires. He went back out in the rain and it cost him. Kimball slammed hard into the wall in his No. 83 Novo Nordisk Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing.

"It was the right call, maybe we were a little too aggressive," said Kimball, who escaped injury. "I caught a puddle and the car just snapped."

Dixon was one of the drivers who pitted to get rain tires on Lap 31, but it hurt him when the rain didn't come until nearly 10 laps later.

Marco Andretti, left, Carlos Munoz of Colombia, center, and Simon Pagenaud of France hold their trophies after the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix Saturday.