Infineon course tests drivers

One unique feature of Infineon Raceway is Turn 2, where the drivers make a sharp right after accelerating up a steep hill moments after crossing the starting line.

Maneuvering through that section of the 12-turn, 2.3-mile track is tricky enough when the cars are single file. When they're bunched together, it gets even dicier.

So it was Sunday at the start of the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, as a cluster of cars -- including then-points leader Scott Dixon's -- collided as they moved through Turn 2 on the first lap, effectively knocking them out of contention.

But the mishap occurred behind pole-sitter Dario Franchitti, who then held off Ryan Briscoe to lead all 75 laps and collect his first win at the Infineon course in the hills of Northern California wine country.

Yet, with his second-place finish, Briscoe left Sonoma with the lead in the IndyCar championship standings.

He leads by four points over Franchitti and 20 points over third-place Dixon -- Franchitti's teammate at Target Chip Ganassi Racing -- with three races left in the series' 17-race schedule.

Rookie Mike Conway was third -- his best IndyCar finish -- and Mario Moraes was fourth.

Starting from the pole "really set up today and allowed us to go and control the race," said Franchitti, who has four wins this season, tying him with Dixon for the series high.

"I guess it wasn't too eventful for everybody out there, but I was just trying to be perfect, not make any mistakes and keep everybody in the rear-view mirror," Franchitti said.

Actually, the first lap was too eventful for the drivers collected in the accident. Besides Dixon, they included Danica Patrick, her Andretti Green Racing teammates Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and E.J. Viso.

Most were able to continue after repairs but finished well behind the leaders on a clear, breezy day in the low 70s. Kanaan, for instance, finished eighth and Patrick was 16th.

"It's frustrating when this all happens on the first lap, but it is what it is," Patrick said.

Helio Castroneves, the defending winner at Sonoma, was running third behind Briscoe, his teammate at Penske Racing, in pursuit of Franchitti until Lap 67. That's when Castroneves' car veered off the track into the surrounding dirt, a victim of a broken front suspension.

"We were very lucky that there wasn't more damage," Castroneves said. "It's really a shame because the car was great."

Dixon, the reigning series champion, had climbed back into the top 10 late in the race but, on the final lap, spun out after being hit by Andretti.

Although Dixon crossed the finish line 14th and initially was 21 points behind Briscoe, race officials later penalized Andretti for "avoidable contact" and gave Dixon a 13th-place finish, leaving him 20 points back.

"It was a tough race," Dixon said, adding that Andretti apologized afterward for what Dixon termed "a bit of a mix-up there at the end. It's just one of those days."

Briscoe had to be consoled with the points lead after failing to get past Franchitti all day.

"I was pressuring him, doing what I could, but he wouldn't budge, he wouldn't make mistakes," Briscoe said.

"If we're going to win the championship, I'm going to have to win at least one of the last three races," he said. "But we know we're up there and the wins are going to come."

Franchitti, a Scotsman of Italian descent who is married to actress Ashley Judd, returned to the IndyCar Series this year after an ill-fated season in NASCAR stock car racing, which he joined after winning the IndyCar championship and the Indianapolis 500 in 2007.

He is in contention to win another title, but the championship battle probably will go down to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida on Oct. 10.

"It's so difficult with the competition level," Franchitti said. "You can't afford mistakes, [but] we've all made them this year."





At Infineon Raceway, Sonoma, Calif. Lap length: 2.258 miles. Starting position in parentheses; all cars Dallara chassis, Honda engine:

*--* PL. DRIVER LAPS 1 (1) Dario Franchitti 75 2 (2) Ryan Briscoe 75 3 (9) Mike Conway 75 4 (14) Mario Moraes 75 5 (5) Hideki Mutoh 75 6 (17) Oriol Servia 75 7 (22) Justin Wilson 75 8 (7) Tony Kanaan 75 9 (18) Raphael Matos 75 10 (15) Robert Doornbos 75 11 (20) Ed Carpenter 75 12 (12) Dan Wheldon 75 13 (10) Scott Dixon 75 14 (4) Marco Andretti 75 15 (19) Richard Antinucci 75 16 (11) Danica Patrick 74 17 (21) Milka Duno 71 18 (3) Helio Castroneves 66, contact 19 (16) Ryan Hunter-Reay 65, mechanical 20 (8) Franck Montagny 57, handling 21 (6) Graham Rahal 30, mechanical 22 (13) E.J. Viso 0, contact 23 (23) Will Power did not start 24 (24) Nelson Philippe did not start *--*

Race statistics

* Winner's average speed: 94.745 mph.

* Time of race: 1:49:23.0073.

* Margin of victory: 0.2488 of a second.

* Cautions: 2 caution flags for 7 laps.

* Lead changes: None.

* Lap leaders: Franchitti 1-75.

* Point standings: 1. Briscoe, 497; 2. Franchitti, 493; 3. Dixon, 477; 4. Castroneves, 371; 5. Patrick, 335; 6. Andretti, 323; 7. Kanaan, 318; 8. Wheldon, 306; 9. Rahal, 301; 10. Mutoh, 297.

-- Associated Press

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