BY JIM MILLER WEEKLY INDCAR WRITER
James Hinchcliffe set a record by leading the Firestone 600 for 76 days when it was postponed due to rain back in June. He looked dominant during Saturday evening’s completion of the race and led a combined 188 of 248 laps. It was the last few hundred yards, however, where Graham Rahal zigzagged him to take the win by .0080 seconds, the closest finish in the 20-year history of Texas Motor Speedway’s 1.455-mile oval and the fifth-closest finish of any Indy car race in history.
After being rained out twice back on June 11 the race was postponed at the 71 lap mark. The race restarted Saturday with 20 of the 22 cars competing. Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly who crashed out during the June event were ruled ineligible for the completion because their cars could not have been repaired that day.
The restart had the cars in the position they held when it was suspended with Hinchcliffe at the front. After a brief practice session Saturday the race began under a 3-lap pace and the cars taking off on Lap 74. With a clean track and cooler temperatures under the lights the pit strategies centered around managing tire degradation and downforce.
Hinchcliffe left no doubt he was the one to beat as Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves provided constant pressure on him during the initial 40 laps. Dealing with downforce issues and pit stops RHR and Castroneves both slipped back allowing Ed Carpenter, Graham Rahal, and Will Power to slide in and out the top three positions behind Hinchcliffe.
Hinchcliffe was so dominant that he full-pitted on Lap 206 and came out still in the lead. By this point in the race only 5 cars were on the lead lap.
The race was caution-free until Lap 213 when Scott Dixon, trying to stay on the lead lap, appeared to tap the rear pod of Ed Carpenter who had pulled alongside on the upper line. Dixon lost control and went into the wall damaging his car and ending his evening. Carpenter was able to continue.
On Lap 224 Carpenter was running second behind Hinchcliffe when the right rear wiggled and Carpenter couldn’t control it. He went up and collected Castroneves slightly into the wall. Castroneves was able to pit and have his rear section and nose cone replaced, but Carpenter was done for the night. Carpenter stated that he thought the spin was caused by a cut tire from his prior tangle with Dixon.
With only 16 laps to go the third caution of the evening came out when Mikhail Aleshin, who was running in fifth place on fresh tires, lost control in Turn 4 and spun. Jack Hawksworth came along and couldn’t avoid Aleshin’s car resulting in intense contact to the rear of Aleshin’s car and careened into the wall. Aleshin exited his car unharmed while Hawksworth injured his knee and needed assistance in walking to the ambulance.
The race restarted with 8 laps to go and a sprint to the finish was on with Hinchcliffe and Rahal in front followed by Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud the only other lead-lap cars giving chase. On fresher tires after making pit stops during the last caution period, championship leader Pagenaud and Kanaan each made moves for the lead that Hinchcliffe fought off. At one point on Lap 244, the top four cars ran side by side.
On the final lap coming out of Turn 4 Rahal faked a high move and ducked down inside of Hinchcliffe pulling off the win by the slimmest of margins for his fourth career victory and first since winning at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in August 2015. This was Honda’s first win since the Indianapolis 500.
Hinchcliffe settled for second, and Kanaan wound up in third giving him the 76th podium finish of his 19-year Indy car career (11th on the all-time list). Pagenaud finished fourth, upping his points advantage to 28 over teammate Will Power, who finished eighth, with two races remaining.
“James did a great job tonight; he deserved to win it, honestly,” said Rahal, who dedicated the win to the late Bryan Clauson and Justin Wilson. “It was pretty intense. If Texas Motor Speedway didn’t love that, they don’t love racing. I’m so proud of this team.”
With the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Watkins Glen (Sept. 4) and the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sept. 18) remaining on the schedule, nine drivers remain mathematically alive for the 2016 championship: Pagenaud, Power, Kanaan, Castroneves, Newgarden, Dixon, Rahal, Hinchcliffe and Munoz.