Graham Rahal held onto the lead out of a caution with three laps left to earn his second IndyCar win, closing out a wild, record-setting day at Auto Club Speedway on Saturday in California.
A sparse crowd saw quite a show as cars sling-shotted past each other at an average of 205mph and raced up to five wide around the two-mile oval.
The 500-mile 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 in 2001 at Auto Club Speedway.
Rahal went in front late and stayed there after a late red flag, winning under caution after Ryan Briscoe went airborne in a collision with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Rahal’s first victory was in 2008 at St Petersburg.
Tony Kanaan finished second, ahead of Marco Andretti and series points leader Juan Pablo Montoya.
After three years serving as the season finale under the lights, the Fontana race was moved to June with a daytime start. The heat of inland southern California made it tougher on teams to get the right set-up and put a premium on drivers finding the right racing grooves.
Adding another dimension, IndyCar has a new aero kit configuration for this season, putting much more downforce on the cars than a year ago at Fontana.
Some drivers, including Montoya, were concerned the extra downforce would lead to pack racing at Fontana, which is entertaining for the fans, but dangerous for the drivers.
That’s what happened – at least the entertaining part – in a frenetic day of racing.
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 Australian Will 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 continued.
Cars darted and dashed around each other at more than 200mph, occasionally touching tyres. 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 Sato came together with nine laps left, bringing out a red flag.
Several drivers made a run at Rahal, but he held them off.
Power ultimately finished 19th in his Dallara-Chevrolet after starting from eighth. He retains second in the overall standings with 361 points, behind Montoya on 407 and just ahead of New Zealander Scott Dixon (358).