LONG POND, Pa. -- The IZOD IndyCar Series welcomed back some familiar faces on Sunday.
First and foremost, open-wheel racing returned to Pocono Raceway for the first time since 1989, drawing an enthusiastic crowd estimated at 35,000 on a hot, sunny day.
But perhaps a more significant comeback was registered by Honda, which powered six of the top seven finishers in the Pocono IndyCar 400, including a 1-2-3 finish for Chip Ganassi Racing, which had been pretty much MIA throughout the 2013 season. Scott Dixon scored his 30th career IndyCar race win, leading teammates Charlie Kimball and Dario Franchitti.
It was the 200th race win for Honda Indy car engines, dating to the start of the program in 1993. It was also the 100th victory for the Target Racing program, all of which have been achieved by Chip Ganassi Racing -- 90 in Indy cars, five in stock cars and five in sports cars.
"As one of the longest consecutive team partnerships in motor racing history, we're thrilled to celebrate this 100th win with Target," Ganassi said. "We're looking forward to the next 100 wins."
As is often the case in stock car races staged at Pocono, fuel mileage was an important factor. And that proved to be Honda's trump card on Sunday.
Honda has generally played second fiddle to Chevrolet in the two years of IndyCar's current turbocharged engine formula. The latest specification of Honda power plant installed in several cars for the race at Pocono looked to still lack top-end power compared to the Chevys, but its superior fuel economy was the key difference in a race that was slowed by only two early cautions.
Honda and Ganassi were helped by the demise of the Andretti Autosport team that dominated qualifying, sweeping the three-wide front row. Second-fastest qualifier James Hinchcliffe inexplicably crashed on the first corner of the first lap, while defending IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay was running second when he was taken out in a pit entry crash after a driving error by Takuma Sato.
Pole winner Marco Andretti looked like the man to beat, leading 88 of the 160 laps. But Andretti was constantly stopping earlier than his Honda counterparts, and he and the other Chevrolet runners were obliged to slow down in the final two stints to stretch their fuel to the finish.
As the frequent leader, the heavier consumption of the Chevy affected Andretti more than the rest of the bow tie brigade. Hoping for a caution that never came, he had to stretch his final tank over 33 laps, dropping him to 10th place at the flag.
"We knew early, but not early enough," said the local hero. "I think we should have responded quicker."
"I'm so frustrated for RC Cola and everybody," he added. "We were just so dominant and I'm just absolutely gutted."
The longer the race ran green, the more apparent the fuel-mileage contest became. The final 90 laps ran caution-free, handing the race to the more efficient Honda brigade.
Dixon and the Honda runners consistently achieved an extra two to three laps per 18.5-gallon tank while still maintaining decent pace, a huge advantage on long green-flag runs.
"I said to Chip this morning that I didn't think we'd be sitting in Victory Lane," Dixon remarked. "To say the least, it was a little bit of a shock.
"I knew the car was good. We just weren't really sure about our pace. We trimmed the car quite a bit and just hoped that we would be able to at least hang with them and on the pit stops maybe have a better stop and better fuel mileage. The fuel mileage was massive."
I said to Chip [Ganassi] this morning that I didn't think we'd be sitting in Victory Lane. To say the least, it was a little bit of a shock.
”-- Scott Dixon
If the victory was a relief for Honda, which trails Chevrolet 18-8 in race wins over the past two seasons, it was perhaps even more important for the Ganassi team.
The most dominant Indy car team of the past two decades has looked like a shadow of itself over the past two years. Even when the Honda engine has been competitive, the Ganassi team has often not been the best Honda team.
"I'm excited for the team," Dixon said. "It's been a rough year for us, for Team Target, and also for HPD [Honda Performance Development]. We have had small parts of goodness but not the consistency that we have been used to. When we've had good cars, we've maybe had an engine problem, and when we've had good engines, we've had a bit of a car problem.
"I think we know the issues and why we have been struggling a little bit. What you've got to look at is that when we have equal equipment to all the other teams out there, our record is pretty damn good. So it's nice to get back. Obviously to have the team sweep at the podium is fantastic."
Second place matched Kimball's best IndyCar Series finish, while the third-place finish for Franchitti was -- remarkably -- his first podium of the 2013 season.
Although a fifth IndyCar Series championship is not in the cards this year for Franchitti (he's 11th in the standings), he is still upbeat about the upcoming races.
"The fuel mileage of the Honda engine was exceptional," he said. "We are still a little shy on the horsepower, but in race conditions here, it was really the thing to have.
"The engine we have in the car now should suit the tracks we are going to, whether it be Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, Baltimore -- all those places coming up," he added. "This probably wasn't going to be its strongest track, so we are pretty excited moving forward."
The fact that championship leaders Helio Castroneves (eighth place), Hunter-Reay (20th) and Andretti (10th) had poor days at Pocono has given Dixon hope of contending for a third series championship of his own.
Castroneves now leads Hunter-Reay by 17 points, Andretti by 55 and Dixon by 64.
"Helio has still got a sizable lead in the championship, but considering the crazy and poor results we've had throughout the year, it's still astonishing that we are fourth in the championship," Dixon said.
"Everybody has been working extremely hard and it's nice to have a glimpse of something great and some things to be positive about. Hopefully we can keep this momentum rolling."