A shocking turn of events in the final stages of last year’s Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway allowed Justin Wilson to finally earn his first career win on an oval.
Wilson was running second behind Graham Rahal, who was trying to keep control of a car that was creeping up the high line as the laps ticked away. With three laps to go, Rahal finally lost the battle and his No. 38 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda brushed the wall coming out of Turn 4, giving Wilson the opportunity he needed.
The Englishman would pass Rahal down the backstretch with two to go, and he went on to win for the first time since his 2009 triumph on the venerable road course at Watkins Glen. Long regarded as one of the series’ best road racers, Wilson now had a victory to prove that he also had the chops on the speedways.
“I saw [Rahal] sliding more and more every lap, and I didn’t think there was no chance, but when I saw him hit the wall, I thought ‘OK, now it’s time to go,'” Wilson said.
It was a thrilling conclusion to a race that proved the IndyCars could still properly do the job on high-banked ovals. Tension was high going into the event, which was the first on a high-banked oval since the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The tragedy had triggered sharp debate on Texas’ track fencing between the drivers and track president/general manager Eddie Gossage, which only added to the problematic atmosphere. But as the race loomed, IndyCar rolled out an aerodynamic package with lower downforce levels that was designed to put more in the drivers’ hands and eliminate the pack racing that had been prevalent at past Texas races.
It worked. Outside of starts and restarts, the packs were absent but drivers were still able to pass one another as the grip levels on their Firestone tires faded away noticeably over the course of their stints.
“I didn’t watch the race from the outside, but all I know is that I saw guys going forward like crazy one stint, then next stint, they were falling back — I was one of them,” Rahal said. “That’s phenomenal. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way it used to be.”
Scott Dixon appeared to be the man to beat, leading 133 laps on the night, but crashed on Lap 173 shortly after Will Power had taken the lead from him. The subsequent restart then saw Power chop Tony Kanaan as they went three-wide with Ryan Briscoe for the lead on the backstretch. That earned Power a drive-through penalty for blocking and ruined the race for Kanaan, who lost a front wing in the incident.
Briscoe took control after that, but Rahal would eventually take the lead from him with 28 laps to go. However, Wilson was picking up the pace as well, taking second from Briscoe on Lap 216 and moving in on Rahal to help set up the dramatic finish.