Krupa: Exciting race results on dandy day for Honda

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — What is exciting, good for the fans and TV ratings and beneficial for the competitiveness of a sport often leaves favorites wishing they could stop when the predictions are made, before having to contest the results.

It was that kind of weekend on the bumpy, wet idiosyncratic track on Belle Isle for Team Penske and Chevrolet.

And halfway through the IndyCar Series season, the drivers and teams toward the back of the pack, and the once-stumbling manufacturer, Honda, were suddenly competitive.

The four Penske drivers looked like they were about to reassert what they thought was their birthright with just three laps left in the race Sunday.

Then, literally within a five-second sequence, their world changed.

With Juan Pablo Montoya driving strong in second place and Will Power and Helio Castroneves appearing poised to rush toward the front on a drying track, disaster struck.

It was absolute catastrophe, and one of those moments after which drivers and team owners shrug their shoulders and, with disappointment etched in their faces, say, "That's racing."

Intent on saving fuel, which was the proper strategy, because he barely made it to the end of the race, Montoya allowed Takuma Sato to jump by him, into second, within the blink of an eye on a restart.

Suddenly third, it got worse for Montoya, who led the second Dual in Detroit most of the way, and had come into the weekend leading in the point standings, after a huge win in the Indianapolis 500.

Then, it got even worse. Graham Rahal passed him, too.

The opportunity for victory suddenly evaporated.

At precisely that moment, as Power and Castroneves scrambled dozens of yards to the rear to catch the leaders, Tristan Vautier veered slightly to his right and clipped the rear left tire of an accelerating Power.

The impact moved Power and his car radically and uncontrollably to his left, where he "collected" his teammate, Castroneves.

In racing, "collected" is a polite word for wrecked.

In an instant, Power and Castroneves were out of the race.

'It's good racing'

As yet another yellow flag froze racing along the entire course, ABC broadcast an interview to fill in for the action. They picked Roger Penske, who was standing at his pit stand, with his headphones on, suddenly freed from his responsibilities of engineering Castroneves' race.

"Well, it's good racing," he said, with a fairly big smile. "And that's good for the fans, who came out here in this weather."

When the race restarted, Sebastien Bourdais won, followed by Sato.

Montoya ran out of gas three turns after crossing the finish line. And that explained why, having fallen suddenly behind Sato and Rahal, he then watched six more drivers pass him, in three laps.

He finished 10th.

The best drivers and the best cars still need fuel.

"Coming to today, I think we saw dominance from one team," Sato said after the race. "But, in IndyCar, you can win from the back of the field.

"For us, it's important to make the sport as exciting as possible.

"Penske, Ganassi they are the big teams and tough to beat. But that does not mean it's impossible. That's why racing is a sport."

At Indianapolis, Honda could put just two cars in the top 10.

In Detroit, Honda won the first race on Saturday. In Sunday's second race, there were eight Hondas between Bourdais's Chevrolet in first and Montoya's in 10th.

Montoya plays guinea pig

Before the race, with the starting grid determined by team points in the standings, because the dozen hours of continual rain wiped out the second round of an abbreviated qualifying session, the Penske guys seemed primed for victory.

Montoya was awarded the pole, and defending IndyCar champion Will Power, who won on Belle Isle last season, was second on the grid.

Because of the wet conditions on the track, and rain continuing to fall at the start of the race, they were in prime position.

"It's good to start at the front, especially if it starts wet," Power said. "It could be very difficult to see, if you're in the back of the pack."

Montoya liked his position, and his car in the first group of qualifying, that was eventually cancelled.

"I felt like we had a really good car in the session," he said. "I think visibility is good for the race, in front. But, at the same time, you are the guinea pig."

As the guinea pig for the track conditions, Montoya was supreme. His driving was outstanding, all rainy day long.

But when it came to fuel strategy, the experimentation nearly croaked the little beast.

Montoya had to back off to finish, to preserve points, and his place in the IndyCar series standings. And he did his job, leaving town with an 11-point lead over Power, who also maintained his position in second, in the standings.

"It is what it is," Montoya said.