Graham Rahal wins crash-marred IndyCar race in Fontana

Graham Rahal won for the first time in seven years, but the broader themes of Saturday's MAVTV 500 in Fontana were parity and pack racing.

There were 80 lead changes at Auto Club Speedway, breaking the previous IndyCar record of 73 set in November 2001. The close competition led to some exciting moments, including when Rahal eclipsed Tony Kanaan at the finish line, but also produced some dangerous crashes.

The scariest crash occurred on the final lap, when Ryan Briscoe and Ryan Hunter-Reay tangled and Briscoe's car went airborne. Both drivers emerged unscathed, but Kanaan, who won this race last year, didn't hold back in his assessment of how the sparsely-attended race unfolded.

"We can't forget that we lost my best friend in exactly the same way in 2011," Kanaan said, referring to Dan Wheldon, who died at age 33 after a collision during a 2011 IndyCar race in Las Vegas. "I understand what the fans want. If you say we're going to have 100,000 people and this is what we're going to do, I might agree with you that we need to put it out there. To have 5,000 people out there and do this, it's stupid."

In a testy follow-up with a reporter who asked why it mattered how many fans were in the stands, Kanaan replied, "Are you risking your life out there? You're not. You're sitting in a chair and writing about it. So once you feel this way, and you lose your best friend, you might say something like that."

Kanaan's gripe — that the cars had too much downforce, causing drivers to be clustered together — was echoed by Will Power, who was involved in a crash with Takuma Sato on Lap 241.

"I'm just so happy that no one was really hurt," Power said during a television interview. "Someone's got to take responsibility for how this turned out. As exciting as it is, it's insane. You cannot get away, and you have to take massive risks to gain track position. That's crazy racing. Crazy, crazy, crazy."

Rahal took a decidedly more upbeat tone after his second career IndyCar victory, brushing off complaints about driver safety.

"Look, I think it's racing," he said. "You know, we have taken ourselves to a place over the last few years where we've reduced the downforce so far that we couldn't even race."

Rahal's win, his first in 125 races, moved him to fourth place in the IndyCar standings, behind Juan Pablo Montoya, Power and Scott Dixon.

"This is a big, big deal for us." Rahal said. "To kind of rebound the way we have all season, this feels good to win for sure . . . but it's been a good year. We've shown that it wasn't a one-hit wonder."

It was hot as always at the MAVTV 500, though a decent amount of cloud cover made the 123-degree track temperature slightly more bearable for drivers.

For the first 135 laps, there were no crashes and no yellow caution flags. That changed when Helio Castroneves was caught between a surging Briscoe and Power. Castroneves made contact with Briscoe and spun out.

"It was a long ride going sideways," Castroneves said in a TV interview.

Castroneves attempted to rejoin the race after he and his team examined the damage to his car, but bowed out shortly thereafter. Briscoe was assessed a drive-through penalty for making avoidable contact.

Another collision occurred 24 laps later, between teammates Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden. Carpenter ran out of room and sent both cars into the outer wall.

Marco Andretti finished third and Montoya was fourth, while pole winner Simon Pagenaud ended up ninth. Pagenaud, who dropped out of the top spot almost immediately after the race began, threatened to re-take the lead at various points but was unable to race at the front of the pack for sustained periods. He wasn't alone: getting the lead and maintaining it didn't come easily Saturday. Luckily for Rahal, he grabbed the lead when it mattered most.

"It was the closest race we've seen in a long, long time," Rahal said. "I think today we were very fortunate to be in the position that we were in."

alexander.shultz@latimes.com

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