FORT WORTH – If you squinted hard enough, it was 2002 all over again.
“It took some old-school Texas right there,” said Tony Kanaan, who was actually there. “I had to dig into my hard drive and remember how to do pack racing again, and it worked out pretty well.”
For a few hours Saturday night, it was as if 14 years hadn’t passed since Texas Motor Speedway’s peak era of “pack racing.”
James Hinchcliffe wishes that were the case. If it were, he might have won the 2016 Firestone 600.
“My night was great until about eight minutes to go,” Hinchcliffe joked in the TMS media center after finishing second to Graham Rahal in a race that began 77 days earlier on June 12.
Hinchcliffe led 188 laps between June 12 and Aug. 27, but Rahal led only one – the big one – by a track record .008 seconds.
“I’ve seen so many races won here on the high line, coming to the line because you just have that momentum off of (Turn) 4,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was going — thinking back to my IRL Classic days and Sam Hornish Jr.’s tricks and all the rest of it, but man, Graham just pulled through (Turns) 3 and 4 like no one had all night.”
Hinchcliffe, who lapped the field up to fifth place, said his No. 5 Honda was an “absolute rocketship.”
But after a late afternoon practice session, Rahal told his team over the radio that his No. 15 Honda was “a f—ing rocketship.”
Rahal initiated The Dive as he, Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan approached Turn 3 for the last time.
Other drivers, including Kanaan, had made similar desperate maneuvers in the seven laps since the last restart.
Rahal, who had restarted the race in 12th and at one point in the night survived a four-wide pass, was the only one who made it work.
“Once I could get there, I could drive through them,” said Rahal, who had to juggle battling Kanaan for second while also trying to overtake Hinchcliffe. “It was just a matter of trying to pick your spot, and very fortunately at the end, I knew I was going to have to try to take Hinch to the top side because there was only one way actually to clear him, which was to the bottom, and I was just very lucky it worked.”
After constantly fending off Kanaan, Hinchcliffe had expected to contend with him coming to the checkers. To Hinchcliffe’s surprise, it was the No. 15 that finally bested him as Kanaan settle into third.
“I hadn’t been next to a car all night that cleared me that quickly,” Hinchcliffe said, his right hand on his face in disbelief. “You know, he had the pace when he needed to. That was the time to make that move, and like I said, credit to him.”
Rahal, who won three times in the last two seasons, was gracious to Hinchcliffe as he wore the cowboy hat that winners at TMS are bestowed. The hat he lost to Justin Wilson in 2012.
“I have to thank Hinch a lot because, first of all, we’re flying home together tonight, so at least it’s not going to be awkward,” Rahal joked. “Second of all, he gave me some good room at the bottom and didn’t end up in tears. Have to thank him for good, clean driving.”
As Rahal and his car were pushed toward a waiting victory lane, his teammates would not stop yelling.
Amid the hollers, one gray-clad team member declared simply – “That’s racing!”
Even though he led 188 laps and finished second, Hinchcliffe agrees with those who snatched away his shot to wear a 10-gallon hat and fire off six-shooters.
“I had a blast. That’s the problem. I had an absolute blast. Had I not led every lap of the race, I would be much happier than I am,” Hinchcliffe said. “Certainly at the end we put on a hell of a show for the fans, and that’s what we’re here for … It would have been a lot more boring if some car just won by half a straightaway.”
That’s coming from the driver who until a series of late cautions, likely would have done that exact thing.
“It’s also a lot different than what it used to be,” Rahal said. “It is not just flat-out easy pack racing anymore. I mean, you were lifting a heck of a lot in traffic, but the way these cars suck up nowadays, the draft is huge so it just makes the racing awesome.”
It may have looked like 2002. But in 2016, it might have been better.