By JENNA FRYER, Associated Press
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — When his team owner asked Justin Wilson where he wanted to win this year, the road course expert had an immediate yet interesting answer: Texas Motor Speedway.
Why? Because nobody thought he could win on an oval.
In the end, it was fitting it was Wilson, the leader of the driver group and an active player in working with IndyCar to ensure Saturday night's return to the first high-banked oval since Dan Wheldon's fatal accident would be a safe race.
Wilson picked up his first career win on an oval, his first since Watkins Glen in 2009, and made Dale Coyne the first owner besides Penske Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing to win in the first seven events of the IndyCar season.
"Without hesitation I said, 'I want to win at Texas,' " Wilson said. "People think I can't drive at this track, so I want to put that to rest. This is considered a traditional mile-and-a-half oval, and typically we've run flat out here, and the quickest car usually wins as far as straight line speed, not necessarily balance and handling.
"For me, this is a track I seem to have struggled on the most over the last few years, and like every driver I've got an ego, so I wanted to put that straight."
Although he was strong at points in the race — Wilson led 11 laps total — and clearly was very fast at the end, he was still a surprise winner after Graham Rahal wrecked while leading in the topsy-turvy race that took out several contenders.
Rahal took control of the race with a strong pass of Ryan Briscoe 28 laps from the finish. Rahal had pulled away from the field and seemed headed to his first victory since 2008, but his car drifted high into the wall as he exited the fourth turn.
Rahal bounced back onto the track and kept going, albeit slower, and Wilson charged past him with two laps remaining. The Englishman pulled away from Rahal to snap a 46-race winless streak, dating to Watkins Glen in 2009.
"That's just fantastic," Wilson said. "I just can't believe we managed to pull this off. I saw people sliding around, and knew I just had to hit my marks. I saw (Rahal) sliding more and more every lap. I didn't think it was much chance, but then when I saw him hit the way, I thought 'OK, it was time to go.'
"It was four-wheel drifting all the way into three, all the way out of four. You were having to hang on out there."
A disappointed Rahal settled for second, his best finish of the season and best finish ever at Texas. Honda drivers finished first and second.
"I just messed up, honestly. There's not much else to say," Rahal said. "I didn't expect it, honestly. I own up to it, and we'll come back and we'll win one here, and I certainly feel like it should have been today.
"Congrats to Justin, because certainly Justin is not known as an oval racer, but he did a hell of a job. I'll admit, I was surprised when I saw him the second to last stint, saw him come flying up behind me."
Briscoe was third for Chevrolet and followed by James Hinchcliffe, JR Hildebrand and rookie Simon Pagenaud. Helio Castroneves was seventh, points leader Will Power eighth, and pole-sitter Alex Tagliani and Wilson's teammate James Jakes rounded out the top 10.
The race took several turns, beginning when Scott Dixon wrecked late after leading 133 of the 228 laps, and he was clearly the class of the field.
"Just gutted, man, gutted for everybody," said Dixon, winner last week at Belle Isle.
Dixon's crash set up a restart with Power and Penske Racing teammate Briscoe lined up first and second with Tony Kanaan behind in third.
Kanaan tried to go low and around Power to make it three-wide, but Power blocked him and the contact broke Kanaan's front wing. He was furious and demanded IndyCar penalize Power, and a drive-thru penalty was indeed issued.
"I had Briscoe on the outside and Tony took me by surprise," Power said. "I feel bad for him. 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."
That sequence took Power and Kanaan out of contention: Power went from first to eighth on the penalty and finished eighth, Kanaan wound up 11th.
Kanaan thought Power's block was dangerous, particularly at a track where nerves were already frayed.
"Will just put the biggest block ever on the oval, and when we talk about safety, man," Kanaan said. "That move right there to me is unacceptable. I talked to him, I said 'Man, we talk about safety. I could have put you in the wall and hurt yourself.' "
The race was the first on a high-banked oval for IndyCar since Dan Wheldon's death in a 15-car accident at Las Vegas in October. Drivers were skittish about racing at Texas, and IndyCar worked hard on a formula to break up the pack racing that was cited as a contributing factor in Wheldon's death.
It worked, there was no pack racing, and despite the car being difficult to handle, the race featured passing and an exciting finish. Drivers had been split after qualifying about the downforce level set by IndyCar, with half the field embracing it because it made the cars so difficult to drive and half the drivers opposed while warning it could potentially make Saturday night a boring race.
There seemed to be only praise, though, after the race.
"I have to say, that's the best racing I've ever had on an oval," said Power, who broke his back in the Las Vegas accident. "The car was moving around, and that's the sort of racing we need at places like this."
It was the 24th running of IndyCar at Texas, which has been a strong supporter of the series and hosted big events for 16 consecutive years. But track president Eddie Gossage and IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard have had no discussions on a return in 2013.
Part of the silence is due to the financials of the sanctioning agreement, but Bernard and IndyCar also wanted to see how Saturday night played out.
In the end, there seemed to be strong support from the drivers — the most outspoken group about not racing at Texas — for IndyCar to return.
"From a driver's point of view, I would definitely give it the thumbs up," Wilson said. "I'd ask to come down to the politics side and how Dale saw the race financially, but from a competition side, I thought it was all positive."
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