By Dave Lewadowski for Indycar.com
FONTANA, Calif. — An Indy car racing-record 80 lead changes among 14 drivers was the precursor to a three-lap dash to the finish of the MAVTV 500 following a red flag.
Graham Rahal ended a 124-race winless drought dating to April 6, 2008, on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., and earned his second career victory.
The red flag was displayed on Lap 245 of 250 on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval after contact between the No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet driven by Will Power and the No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Honda of Takuma Sato on the frontstretch.
Rahal, driving the No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, won under caution as the cars driven by Ryan Briscoe and Ryan Hunter-Reay made contact in a pack battling for position coming to the white flag. Briscoe’s No. 5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda flipped and landed on its wheels. All drivers were checked at the infield medical center and cleared.
“You don’t know how good this feels. It’s been so long coming; it’s awesome,” said Rahal, who qualified 19th. “I feel like this year we have been knocking on the door a lot. We’ve been so close and I feel like we deserved it before but hadn’t gotten it yet so to get this one feels unbelievable. Our weakness has been these ovals and I told the guys this morning that the next three races will define our year.”
Tony Kanaan finished second in the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet and Marco Andretti placed third in the No. 27 Snapple Andretti Autosport Honda.
Juan Pablo Montoya finished fourth to extend his championship points lead to 46 over Power, and rookie Sage Karam earned his highest finish of fifth in his eight-race career at the track where he wrapped up the 2013 Indy Lights championship.
The record for lead changes had been 73 in November 2001 in a 500-mile race at Auto Club Speedway (then California Speedway) won by Cristiano da Matta.
“I was going four-wide and thinking, ‘Man, I haven’t been four wide in six or seven years.’ It makes you nervous, for sure. You trust the guys. When you’re running up front you’re hoping you’re with all the best guys. I was racing with Kanaan and (Scott) Dixon and Power, and then Hunter-Reay a lot, so to trust those around you helps a lot. It was a hairy racing.”
The first half of the race was caution-free with 43 lead changes and heading for a record for all-time average speed. The first yellow came out on Lap 136 when the cars driven by Helio Castroneves and Briscoe made light contact on the backstretch. Five other caution periods followed, including two for debris.
“The Verizon Chevy team did a great job today, despite how tough of a day it was,” said Power, who led a field-high 62 laps but finished 19th. “When you have a pack race like what we had today, you have to take a lot of risks to gain track position. As exciting as it is, it’s intense at the same time.”
Rahal was 19 years, 93 days old when he won at St. Petersburg and is still the youngest Indy car winner. After posting two top-10 finishes in 18 races in 2014, Rahal has five top fives through 11 races this season.
“It feels good and is a big day for us. It shows that our rebound this season is legit,” said Rahal, who moved into fourth place in the standings. “The team is why all of this has come together. Hopefully I can move on from here and not make it seven years until I win again.”
The No. 15 entry faces a post-race review because of a Lap 187 pit stop in which the gravity-fed fuel coupling broke off still attached to the car as Rahal sped away. It dislodged, forcing a caution for debris.