With Danica wreck in past, Briscoe hands Penske Racing win No. 300

WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- A day that started with the focus on the future of IndyCar ended as a celebration of its past as Ryan Briscoe scored the 300th victory for legendary team owner Roger Penske.

Front row starters Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal crashed out, seemingly leaving the ABC Supply/A.J. Foyt Indy 225 at the Milwaukee Mile to be fought between the IndyCar Series' acknowledged top four drivers -- Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing and Team Penske's Helio Castroneves.

Sure enough, the big four finished 2-3-4-5. They were outraced to the checkered flag by Castroneve's teammate. Briscoe, a 26-year-old Australian, was thrust into notoriety just a week ago for his involvement in a pit-lane crash during the Indianapolis 500 with fan favorite Danica Patrick.

"Since Indy and the incident there's been a lot of media and the one thing I always said was I wanted to put it in the past and move forward and move on," Briscoe said. "There's no better way than to win here on the following weekend."

It was on a milestone occasion for one of America's most successful businessmen and racing figures, Roger Penske. The 300-win total for Penske Racing represents all of his team's victories dating to the mid-1960s in a variety of motorsports; 135 of those wins came in IndyCar.

"We're getting old here," quipped Penske, who played a key role in Briscoe's victory by calling for his driver to make an early final pit stop to help him escape heavy traffic. "Rick Mears won his first here [at Milwaukee] 30 years ago. That shows you how long we've been here. That's a lot of time and effort.

"Briscoe really got the monkey off his back and this was a big step for him," Penske added. "From the standpoint of his confidence, there's no question this was exactly what he needed to break the ice and I think we're going to see a new race driver now as we go forward."

Briscoe passed his Penske apprenticeship by finishing fifth in the 2007 Indianapolis 500 for Luczo Dragon Racing and adding a handful of American Le Mans Series sports car wins for Penske's Porsche factory effort. But his first five races with Penske's flagship IndyCar squad had been anything but smooth.

He was taken out in another driver's crash at Homestead, then crashed on his own on the damp St. Petersburg street course. Briscoe's woes peaked at Indianapolis, where he was vilified by Danica Nation for what looked like one of them racin' incidents.

At Milwaukee, he qualified 11th and lost a few more positions in the chaotic first two laps. But once a surprisingly clean race started in earnest and the field got spread out over some long, full-tank fuel runs, Briscoe picked his way to the front.

He passed Dixon for the lead on Lap 177 and was able to maintain a solid lead. When the No. 6 car came up to lap AGR's three-car intra-team battle for ninth place, Penske ordered Briscoe to pit early for his final routine stop -- ultimately 10 laps earlier than Dixon.

Said Penske: "We were coming into traffic and I knew we had to pit in four or five laps. I said, 'Let's roll the dice, come in now and get fresh tires on. We had [a few] laps on fresh tires and as you could see, that gave us the chance to get ahead of those guys. I guess it was pretty much our day."

Briscoe had one final bit of drama to overcome when a three-car accident involving Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter and Vitor Meira unfolded directly in front of him in Turn 2.

"Just before then I was pretty comfortable," Briscoe said. "I knew how to keep Dixon behind me and I was like, 'Let's just bring this home.' Then all of a sudden I'm seeing smoke in front of me and cars flying. I'm like, 'This is not what I need.'

"I locked up and I think I missed them by less than a foot. I think I would have been under the bus crying right now if I would have been hit."

Ryan Briscoe

He is the best observer I have ever talked to. He watched me in practice, talked about lines in traffic and things I need to keep an eye on and I really put a lot of that to use today, especially in the closing stages with Scott. Anything that Rick Mears says is invaluable and this one definitely goes to him.

-- Ryan Briscoe

In many respects, Briscoe's win at Milwaukee was reminiscent of some of Mears' classic victories. Mears, who scored 29 Indy car wins for Penske between 1978-92, serves as an advisor and spotter for the team.

"He is the best observer I have ever talked to," Briscoe said. "He watched me in practice, talked about lines in traffic and things I need to keep an eye on and I really put a lot of that to use today, especially in the closing stages with Scott.

"Anything that Rick Mears says is invaluable and this one definitely goes to him."

The youthful front row of Andretti and Rahal gave a good account of themselves even if neither finished. Rahal looked racy and ran second or third for most of the race before sideswiping the Turn 4 wall after falling afoul of Darren Manning in traffic.

Meanwhile, Andretti led the first 40 laps but faded dramatically as the race progressed. He took out Carpenter near the end of the race, and Meira was launched airborne over Marco's car.

Briscoe's victory Sunday was more evidence that the IndyCar Series has a solid core group of 20-something drivers who could potentially stick around and develop into major stars if American open-wheel racing regains popularity.

There was ample evidence of its potential to rebound on display at Milwaukee, where the race-day crowd was substantially larger than in recent years for either Champ Car World Series or IndyCar Series races at The Mile.

"We're very satisfied and pleased with the attendance," said Milwaukee Mile PR director Jim Tretow. "We're not at capacity by any means, but we'd like to get back to that. It's the first time in several years we had really good weather and there was a great infield crowd."

The IndyCar Series is already contracted to return to Milwaukee in 2009.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.