Fontana, Calif. — Graham Rahal avoided a penalty despite driving out of pit road with part of his fueling mechanism attached and held on through a wild finish for his second career IndyCar victory.
Any other day, that would have been the big news.
After a frenetic day of racing that culminated with Ryan Briscoe hurtling through the air at the finish, all the drivers wanted to talk about was surviving.
Rahal ended a 125-race winless streak by taking the checkers at Auto Club Speedway on Saturday, but there was more criticism of IndyCar than praise for the third-generation driver after a white-knuckle day of pack racing around the 2-mile oval.
"We shouldn't be racing like this," reigning Indianapolis 500 champion and points leader Juan Pablo Montoya said. "This is full pack racing and sooner or later somebody is going to get hurt. We don't need to be doing this."
IndyCar mandated changes on aero kits for the 500-mile Fontana race, exerting more downforce on the cars in hopes of combating high temperatures that were expected to turn Auto Club Speedway slick.
Montoya was among the most vocal opponents to the extra downforce, saying it would lead to the type of pack racing that is entertaining for fans, but dangerous to the drivers.
IndyCar drivers have lamented pack racing since two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon was killed during the high-speed season finale at Las Vegas in 2011, saying it leaves little margin for error at extra-high speeds.
IndyCar has tried to walk a fine line at its big ovals, wanting to produce exciting races with lots of passing while keeping the drivers safe.
After three cars went airborne in preparation for the Indianapolis 500, IndyCar made a series of rule changes designed to keep the cars on the track.
It worked for the Indy 500, and for the oval race at Texas. But the race at Texas was caution-free and lacked the excitement that fans look for during oval races.
Most drivers Saturday believed the series crossed the line at Fontana, particularly after a day bumping, banging and driving up to five wide at 200 mph was capped by Briscoe going airborne after colliding with Ryan Hunter-Reay with two laps left.
Both drivers were OK after the wreck that sent Briscoe hurtling into the grass — a little over a month after he replaced James Hinchcliffe following a near-fatal crash during Indy 500 practice.
"What ARE we doing?" asked defending series champion Will Power, who was involved in a late-race crash. "You went in and told them it would be pack racing and that was a Vegas situation right there. I'm so happy that no one was really hurt. Someone's got to take responsibility for how this day panned out. As exciting as it is, it's insane because you can't get away."
The race was certainly entertaining from a fan's perspective, with cars sling-shotting past each other at an average of 205 mph and racing up to five-wide.
The race eclipsed the season high for lead changes — 37 at Indianapolis — by the midpoint and had 80 overall, topping the IndyCar record of 73 set at Auto Club Speedway in 2001.
It also included 14 different leaders, the last one being Rahal, who started 19th and avoided penalty for a mid-race pit-road foul-up to win for the first time since his inaugural victory at St. Petersburg in 2008.
Tony Kanaan finished second, Marco Andretti was third and Montoya fourth.
"That was nuts, but it was fun," said Rahal, of Rahal Letterman Lannigan Racing.
It certainly was dicey.
Drivers began swapping spots from the drop of the green flag, sometimes going four-wide around the corners. Much of the action was up front, with 32 lead changes in the opening 100 laps.
Despite the chaos, the first caution didn't come until the lap 136, when Helio Castroneves went into the wall after being squeezed between Power and Briscoe.
Castroneves, who entered the race fourth in points, led the most laps to that point (43), but was unable to return after the crew tried to fix his car.
"They just closed it up; Briscoe didn't have to do that," Castroneves said.
The chaos got worse after that.
Cars darted and dashed around each other at more than 200 mph, occasionally touching tires in what looked like video-game racing at times. The cars went five wide with less than 50 laps left and there were two rows of four-wide racing a few minutes after that.
Power took the lead after a caution with 30 laps left, but Briscoe went around him. Rahal managed to squeeze past Briscoe by inches just before Power and Takuma Sato came together with nine laps left, bringing out a red flag.
The drama still wasn't finished.
With Rahal trying to hold off challenges from several drivers, Briscoe came together with Hunter-Reay, sending his No. 5 car sailing through the air. The nose of Briscoe's car came down hard in the grass and sent him spinning through the air before coming to a rest.
Briscoe gave everyone a sigh of relief when he flashed the thumbs up from the cockpit, but it didn't quiet the debate after the race.
"It was exciting for you guys, that's for sure, but it was crazy for us," Kanaan said. "In the end, we all survived."
AJ Allmendinger, developing as the top driver on road courses, won the pole for Sunday's race at winding Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California.
Allmendinger earned the top starting spot during Saturday's knockout qualifying with a lap 96.310 mph around the 10-turn, 1.99-mile course. It's the first pole for JTG Daugherty Racing, which earned its first berth in NASCAR's championship race last year when Allmendinger won on the Watkins Glen road course.
That puts the pressure on Allmendinger, who knows the races at Sonoma and in August at Watkins Glen are likely his best chances to earn a spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
The native of Las Gatos, a little over an hour away from the Sonoma track, wasn't sure how he'd feel heading into Sunday's race.
"I haven't grown up very well on not putting a lot of pressure on myself," Allmendinger said. "We knew that if we go do our job and if I do my job (Sunday), and we have solid pit stops, and we just take care of business, at the end we should give ourselves a chance. That's all we can ask for."
Kurt Busch will start second after his qualifying lap was interrupted when younger brother, Kyle, spun in Turn 10 to bring out a red flag with 7:03 left in the final 10-minute session. The spin also interrupted the lap for Kyle Larson, who was fastest on the day in the first round of qualifying.
Matt Kenseth qualified third and was surprised with the result after a long day of practice Friday. Kenseth has just six career top-10 finishes in 30 starts on NASCAR's road courses.
"Yeah, we kind of overachieved," Kenseth said about qualifying.
Kenseth was followed by Larson and five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon.
Gordon, who began his racing career in Northern California, has been feted the past week in his final race at his home track. The four-time champion is retiring at the end of the year.
He spent last Saturday visiting the first track he ever raced at in Rio Linda, then returned to his middle school in Vallejo for a question and answer session with students. When he arrived at the track on Friday, Sonoma President Steve Page presented him with a Melchior — an 18-liter bottle of wine — engraved with "Hometown Hero," his car and the dates of his five wins.
"I love coming out here, not just because it's home. It is just so many things — the weather, the wine country, family and I love this racetrack," Gordon said. "I'm thrilled that I've had the opportunity to win here five times. I'm thrilled to be here this weekend for the final time behind the wheel.
"It has already been a very special, memorable one."
Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart, Casey Mears, David Ragan and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 10.
For Stewart, a seven-time winner on NASCAR's two road courses, the qualifying effort was a vast improvement from his struggles a day earlier in a pair of practice sessions. And, he felt he could have gotten more out of his qualifying lap.
"It was good, it wasn't as good as our second run was," he said. "I was really happy with our second run. I just over drove a couple of the corners trying to make up time to try to make a pole run out of it. Compared to where we were (Friday) I was really happy with where we ended up."