FORT WORTH, Texas – After all the hand-wringing about racing at Texas Motor Speedway, the return of IndyCar to a high-banked oval ended up as a safe, sound event with an exciting finish and surprising winner in Justin Wilson.
The race had drama, too.
First-year race director Beaux Barfield penalized points leader Will Power for blocking, then Graham Rahal coughed up his first win in nearly five years by brushing the wall with just over two laps remaining. It opened the door for Wilson, a driver not known for strength on ovals, to grab his first victory since 2009 and take small Dale Coyne Racing to Victory Lane.
More important, the race Saturday night went off without a hitch, which was exactly what IndyCar needed in its first trip to a 1.5-mile banked speedway since Dan Wheldon's fatal accident last October at Las Vegas. It was such a success, a return to the track seemed to be the hot topic as the post-race fireworks commemorated IndyCar's 24th race at Texas.
"We put out a great product. The racing was good, the passes were good, and it was a safe race," said Coyne, who also won for the first time since Wilson's victory at Watkins Glen in 2009. "This has always been a staple of the series, and I think it would be very important to come back here again."
Texas and promoter Eddie Gossage have always been one of the top supporters of IndyCar, but the fallout from Wheldon's death and financial negotiations put this year's race in jeopardy. The deal wasn't completed until late December, and there was speculation that drivers could potentially boycott the race over safety concerns.
A major issue was pack racing, one of the contributing factors cited in the investigation into Wheldon's death. But a Wilson-led driver group worked with IndyCar vice president of technology Will Phillips on suggested rules packages, and the tinkering lasted all the way through Friday night's final practice.
The drivers met a week earlier at Belle Isle, and Wilson said the vote was unanimous to request less downforce in the new Dallara DW-12. The goal was to make the car more difficult to drive, putting a greater emphasis on individual skill and theoretically break up the pack.
IndyCar agreed to the change, then gave a slight concession after qualifying when half the field complained the adjustments had gone too far and passing might be too hard.
The end result — nine lead changes between seven drivers, the winner not coming from Penske Racing or Chip Ganassi Racing — seemed to please fans and almost all the competitors.
"All the drivers put their heads together and said, 'We're going to run with less downforce,'" third-place finisher Ryan Briscoe said. "We knew it was going to be hard, it spread the field out, and you had to have a good-handling car."
Power, who broke his back in the Las Vegas crash and was adamant that pack racing had to be broken up for driver safety, raved about the final race product Saturday night. He was so pleased with the racing, he seemed to accept the blocking penalty that took him out of contention. Power was penalized while leading for blocking Tony Kanaan, and it dropped him from a potential win to an eighth-place finish.
"This is the best racing I've ever had on an oval," Power said. "You had to lift, you had to look after your tires, you had to really drive the thing — it was moving around. That is just the sort of racing that we need at these sort of tracks."
Not everyone agreed.
Ed Carpenter, who excels at oval racing, was one of the loudest critics of the package and complained after qualifying "everyone is so freaked out about pack racing" that the downforce changes would make "one of the most boring races we have ever had at Texas."
Carpenter won last season at Kentucky, and falls into a group of drivers who likes to race the car wide-open around an oval. His official team Twitter feed reported during Saturday night's race that Carpenter was bored by the lack of passing on the track and hoped fans weren't disappointed by the product.
After the race, he still seemed to think the package had gone too far.
"I know we are all worried about pack racing, but I prefer the way we raced at Texas before," he said. "And I may be on an island in that sentiment."
Phillips seemed to believe IndyCar was close to perfect with its final package.
"There was plenty of passing, an exciting finish and a safe race," Phillips said. "Would we have tweaked the package slightly if we had to do it again? Not much. We made the drivers work hard, which is something they have been asking for."
Next up for IndyCar is a critical return to Milwaukee, which must be a success for first-time promoter Michael Andretti to remain on the schedule. It's another oval and gives the series a chance to build some momentum after a remarkable Indianapolis 500 and a successful stop in Texas.
"It feels good, and that's what we need," Rahal said. "We put on some great shows this year, and we need to keep that buzz going. I saw guys going forward like crazy one stint, next stint they were falling back like crazy, and I was one of them. That's phenomenal. That's the way it should be. That's the way it used to be.
"And ultimately the goal here is to put more butts in the seats out there and more eyes on the TV. If racing like this keeps helping it, then I'm all for it."