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Sunday, March 14, 2010

IndyCar Race Review: Sao Paulo Indy 300

In his return to the sport after a back injury ended his season early last year, Will Power won his second career IZOD IndyCar Series race, the inaugural Sao Paulo Indy 300, over Ryan Hunter-Reay and Vitor Meira.

In one of the more interesting race weekends in recent memory, Power redeemed his Team Penske compatriot Ryan Briscoe, whose late-race brain fade gave the race away. It was Power's first race as a full-time member for Penske after a limited schedule last year.

Hunter-Reay took second in the season opener for the second consecutive year, in his first race for Andretti Autosport. Meira, the highest finishing Brazilian driver, made his return after an injury at Indianapolis last year ended his 2009 campaign.

The weekend got off to a rough start, with the concrete frontstretch causing drivers to slip and preventing them from taking the straightaway at full throttle. Series director Brian Barnhart had to call in the diamond grinders to give that section of the track some more grip. Qualifying had to be postponed until the morning of the race, for the first time in series history, and multiple extra practice sessions were added.

Dario Franchitti took the pole in the delayed qualifying session, with outside polesitter Alex Tagliani the biggest surprise in qualifying. Brazil was the first race for Tagliani's FAZZT Race Team. Scott Dixon, who had one of the fastest cars in practice, failed to make the Firestone Fast Six, and ended up seventh. Takuma Sato was the top rookie, qualifying tenth. The fastest Brazilian driver was Tony Kanaan, who wound up sixth.

Not long before the green flag, there were reports of sprinkles on part of the track, delaying the start as race control determined whether or not to mandate rain tires. This was only foreshadowing for the showers that came later in the race, and eventually led to a half-hour red flag period.

At the drop of the green flag, the drivers couldn't make it through the first turn before a major accident set the tone for the race. Dust from the freshly ground concrete track made visibility difficult, and Sato didn't brake early enough, getting into Dixon. Helio Castroneves got involved with those two, and Mario Moraes drove over Marco Andretti's car as the American attempted to avoid the accident. Sato, Moraes, and Andretti called it a day from the wreck.

Franchitti, Tagliani, Hunter-Reay, and Kanaan led the pack early, and Simona de Silvestro led after staying out while the rest of the field pitted under a caution period. Not long after, Tagliani, Kanaan, and de Silvestro fell out of contention; Tagliani and Kanaan made contact, while de Silvestro had a mechanical failure.

Soon after, the storm came, and Briscoe led the push into the pits for rain tires. Most cars pitted for new Firestones by lap 30. The rain was so bad that parts of the track flooded, and the storm knocked out timing and scoring services. Eventually, the race had to be switched from a 75-lap event to a timed event.

A few laps after the restart, as other drivers pitted to change to better tire compounds, Hunter-Reay inherited the lead. Briscoe, Raphael Matos, and Will Power ran nose-to-tail, but were over six seconds behind Hunter-Reay with 25 minutes remaining.

Eventually, Briscoe closed the gap, leading to an intense back-and-forth battle that briefly gave the Aussie the lead. Hunter-Reay kept pushing until Briscoe made a mistake, driving head-on into a tire barrier on lap 54 with almost ten minutes left and bringing out a full-course yellow. This gave Hunter-Reay the lead and enough fuel to finish the race.

The race restarted with six minutes to go, with Hunter-Reay, Power, Matos, Vitor Meira, and Wheldon the top five. Power made the winning pass in the final turn on lap 58, showing the type of straight-line speed that Hunter-Reay had exhibited all race. By the final lap, Power had extended a sizable lead.

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