The IndyCar empire of Team Penske and its fleet of Chevys fell short of victory despite appearing best positioned to score another series triumph with all four of its drivers starting in the top five of the Firestone 600 on Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, including pole sitter Will Power.
Helio Castroneves, a four-time winner at TMS, registered a team-best third after the driver of the No. 3 and crew appeared to find the best balance in downforce, in essence doing the best job of managing the new controversial aero kits that were used for the first time on the 1 1/2-mile banked oval.
Perhaps no one found the balance as well as Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, who came in 1-2.
“The car was actually strong,” Castroneves said. “We chose in the middle of the downforce [level]. We knew the Ganassis had more downforce than us and, in the end, they end up getting the best way.
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“When the night came on we start getting more downforce … everybody started getting comfortable. This is the first one everybody understands what the aero pack is going to do.”
A Penske driver has won three of nine races this season, including Juan Pablo Montoya’s triumph at the Indy 500, and been on the pole 11 of the past 12 races dating to The Milwaukee Mile last season.
Power started at the front and led only seven laps before falling off the pace and finishing 13th overall, well back of winner Scott Dixon.
With a fourth-place finish, Montoya, who has six top-fives this season, increased his IndyCar Series points lead to 35 over Power. Castroneves remained in fourth.
Montoya led briefly before what he described as a bad change to the kit on the front wing and fell back in the back but rallied late to almost catch Castroneves.
“I said, ‘This is going to get really loose,’” Montoya said. “So I just backed off and let a few people by and it just started wearing the right rear tire. By the time I stopped again, I lost half a lap.
“You saw how good I was at the end, how I caught Helio. If that would’ve been the case [all race], we probably would’ve won the race, but it is what it is.”
Simon Pagenaud, in the No. 22, started second and led 59 laps, eclipsing his season total in laps led in one race.
Castroneves’ result represented his fourth top-five of the season and 10th at TMS.
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner was perhaps the only driver to go neutral on downforce, “a little too neutral for my tastes” in an aggressive setting of side-by-side racing.
“Some of the close calls were incredible,” Castroneves said. “To be honest, I was like, ‘Ahh! That’s going to be a close one,’ and I closed my eyes. With drivers you can trust, it’s great to run like that. It’s fun.
“At least we’re closer to Juan Pablo [in points] and we’ll keep going.”