Justin Wilson takes Texas thriller

To borrow the old cliche, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Even as leader Graham Rahal rode the high line to save his tires in the final laps, it appeared that he was going to finally follow up his breakthrough victory in 2008 at St. Petersburg with another triumph. But with three laps to go, Rahal got too high and smacked the wall coming out of Turn 4.

He kept going, but he was now easy pickings for Justin Wilson, who passed him on the backstretch and pulled away over the last two laps to win the Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway — his first victory since 2009 at Watkins Glen. Rahal soldiered home to second place, ahead of Ryan Briscoe, James Hinchcliffe and J.R. Hildebrand.

Not surprisingly, Wilson was in shock over his good fortune.

“I just can’t believe we managed to pull this off,” said Wilson, who quickly emerged as a threat from the race’s early stages.

“I saw [Rahal] sliding more and more every lap, and I didn’t think there was no chance, but when I saw him hit the wall, I thought ‘OK, now it’s time to go,'” said Wilson. “It was four-wheel drifting all the way into Turn 3 and all the way out of Turn 4.  You were having to hang on out there.”

Afterwards, Rahal said the blame was solely on him.

“I just made a mistake, you know,” he said. “I mean the car was pushing through the center of [Turns] 3 and 4 pretty well the last stint, and it would kind of grip up for me late in the corner and I kind of stayed with it, because they told me Justin was coming.

“So I was trying to pick up the pace a little bit, and honestly, it just never gripped up and I didn’t give myself enough of a margin for error.”

The thrilling finish was a fitting end to a race that had plenty of questions going in, but plenty of praise when it was all over. Texas’ famous pack racing was by and large absent outside of starts and restarts, but there was still plenty of passing on track as the Firestone tires lost grip at a considerable pace over the course of the drivers’ green flag runs.

Whether that will save the 1.5-mile oval’s place on future schedules for years to come is yet to be determined, but Wilson and Rahal both gave their thumbs-up to the “new” Texas.

“People were nervous, but as soon as the cars went on track, everyone calmed down,” said Wilson. “I thought it was fantastic. Obviously, I won the race, but I had a lot of fun [racing] out there. It was the best fun I’ve ever had on an oval.”

“I didn’t watch the race from the outside, but all I know is that I saw guys going forward like crazy one stint, then next stint, they were falling back — I was one of them,” Rahal said. “That’s phenomenal. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way it used to be.”

The wild finish between Wilson and Rahal began to take shape on Lap 173 of 228, when Scott Dixon crashed shortly after losing the lead to Will Power. Dixon had led 133 laps and appeared to be the man to beat before Power picked off the point on Lap 171. Two laps later, Dixon spun in Turn 4 and hit the SAFER Barrier after inadvertently coming down on the apron of the track.

“We just got loose,” said Dixon. “I turned in and the rear just started to slide and I kind of dipped down onto the apron and spun around again. I feel bad for the guys. We had a really good car and I think we had a good chance to win here tonight.”

But the excitement was only beginning. On the restart at Lap 184, Power’s teammate Ryan Briscoe went to the outside to battle his teammate for the lead. As the cars entered the backstretch, third-place driver Tony Kanaan attempted to go inside of Power and make it three-wide into Turn 3.

However, Power moved over to the inside and Kanaan caught Power’s rear wheel guard instead. The impact broke Kanaan’s front wing (he wound up 11th) and Power was subsequently forced to serve a drive-through penalty for blocking.

“I feel bad for [Kanaan],” said Power, who finished in eighth place. “I ruined his day because he had to come in and change the front wing and we ruined our own day by getting the penalty.”

The penalty moved Briscoe to the front, but Rahal soon made his move and took the lead from the Australian on Lap 200. But Wilson was also making headway too, passing Briscoe for second at Lap 216 and cutting into Rahal’s edge as the laps ticked down.

Then came Rahal’s date with the SAFER.

“We should be in the winner’s circle right now, there’s no doubt,” said Rahal. “After four years of not being there, it would’ve been a hell of a lot of pressure off my shoulders to be there tonight.”

Instead, it was Wilson that reigned supreme deep in the heart of Texas

“I’m just really happy to get this first win on an oval,” he said. “It’s a big relief, and it’s great to get another win for [Dale Coyne]. He’s given me some great cars, and there’s been times earlier this year when we felt we should have at least been on the podium if not better. But we kept saying, ‘It’s okay, it’s racing, it’s going to come good,’ and sure enough, it did.”

IZOD IndyCar Series
Firestone 550 — Texas Motor Speedway

1. Justin Wilson
2. Graham Rahal
3. Ryan Briscoe
4. James Hinchcliffe
5. J.R. Hildebrand
6. Simon Pagenaud
7. Helio Castroneves
8. Will Power
9. Alex Tagliani
10. James Jakes
11. Tony Kanaan
12. Ed Carpenter
13. Josef Newgarden
14. Dario Franchitti
15. Katherine Legge
16. Mike Conway
17. Marco Andretti
18. Scott Dixon
19. E.J. Viso
20. Oriol Servia
21. Ryan Hunter-Reay
22. Takuma Sato
23. Charlie Kimball
24. Rubens Barrichello
25. Simona de Silvestro

Time of race: One hour, 59 minutes, 2.0131 seconds.
Average speed: 167.217 mph
Lead changes: 9
Lap leaders: Tagliani 1-20, Dixon 21-116, Wilson 117-125, Dixon 126-133, Hinchcliffe 134-141, Dixon 142-170, Power 171-194, Briscoe 195-199, Rahal 200-226, Wilson 227-228.
Laps led: Dixon 133, Rahal 27, Power 24, Tagliani 20, Wilson 11, Hinchcliffe 8, Briscoe 5.