Sunday, August 14, 2011

Finish clouds IndyCar’s return to Loudon

The rain clouds that threatened the Indy 225 from its hurried start to its controversial finish really never produced more than a sporadic sprinkle.

But it was enough to create a torrent of controversy by the end of yesterday’s Izod IndyCar Series race, the

first in 13 years at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Ryan Hunter-Reay’s victory for Andretti Autosport was overshadowed by the angry reaction up and down pit road after the race was called five laps from the finish, following IndyCar’s ill-advised decision to restart the race two laps after it had been slowed by a sixth caution for moisture on Lap 215.

The race was red-flagged on Lap 220, then called shortly thereafter. The finishing order was determined by the running order at the time of the last caution. It delivered Hunter-Reay his first victory of the season (fifth of his career). Oriol Servia finished runner-up despite his claims that he had won after passing Hunter-Reay at the start-finish line before the final yellow came out. Scott Dixon finished third despite his claim he should have been runner-up.

“I’m not really sure what they’re complaining that much about, when I think we should have just never had a restart,’’ said Hunter-Reay. “It was still raining, unfortunately. The guys in race control, I’m sure we’re desperate to get it green for, not only the fans at home, but the fans here.

“They certainly deserved a green finish. But when it’s raining, you can’t race on ovals, unfortunately.’’

Brian Barnhart, IndyCar’s president of competition, took full responsibility for making the widely criticized call to go green by bunching the lead pack of seven cars for a double-file restart on Lap 217. He was, however, applauded by Jerry Gappens, NHMS executive vice president and general manager, for making an attempt to end the race under green.

“I’m not going to sit here and crucify him,’’ Gappens said. “I appreciate the effort Brian made to see this race ended under a green flag.’’

Saying he was not aware of any objections from owners and drivers to go green on a slippery track, Barnhart decided to restart the race in the attempt to give the estimated crowd of 30,000 a green-flag finish.

But chaos ensued on Lap 217 when the field came around Turn 4. Danica Patrick’s car spun and took a hard left in front of heavy traffic. It triggered a multicar melee on the frontstretch that collected Patrick’s car as well as that of Will Power, Takuma Sato, Ana Beatriz, and Ed Carpenter.

“Obviously, you want to make the effort that you can for the fans on television and the ones that are in the grandstands here, but you can’t do that at the expense of safety,’’ said Barnhart, who was strongly criticized by car owner Michael Andretti and many drivers - most graphically by Power, who later apologized for a double-fisted obscene gesture he aimed at Barnhart in the press box as the driver stomped toward the garage area.

Power wound up fifth, paring 15 points off Dario Franchitti’s lead in the series points standings after the pole-sitter finished 20th, taken out by a frontstretch collision with Sato on a restart on Lap 118.

“As soon as you had the guys stand on the gas out there, you saw right away it was the wrong decision to make,’’ Barnhart said. “At that point in time, you are just kind of sick to your stomach and realize it was error on race control standpoint, and clearly my fault.’’

Servia, whose best finish of the season gave his Newman/Haas Racing team a pair of top-five results (rookie James Hinchcliffe placed fourth), declared he had won the race. He claimed the field should have never been reverted to the last caution.

“Ryan deserved to win because he was leading for all those laps,’’ Servia said. “But I actually won the race. They went green. I was leading when the yellow came. They even called it in race control: Car 2 was the leader. He had second. He had a bad restart. I don’t know what Ryan was doing.’’

Hunter-Reay said he had merely reacted to the yellow and got off the throttle. “It’s unfortunate that we’re sitting here explaining that,’’ Hunter-Reay said. “But it rained on an oval. We were five laps from the end. And I don’t know why, when it’s wet, that Oriol Servia [said] he led for 20 feet or something like that.

“The rule in IndyCar, just so you know on starts and restarts, the leader has to reach the start-finish line first. That’s a rule. There’s another rule, too. The guy behind the leader can’t come out of line behind the leader until he gets to the start-finish line. So both those things happened.

“There’s a lot of rules stuff going on in there. All I know is we won, and I’m happy about it.’’

For a race that ended under a cloud of controversy, Hunter-Reay was the only driver who departed NHMS with a sunny disposition.

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