HOMESTEAD — The placard along palm-lined Speedway Boulevard read "It All Starts Here." Not a completely imaginative slogan to sell the Indy Racing League season-opener, but completely applicable.
Twelve years after open-wheel racing was fractured by Tony George's creation of the Indy Racing League, the sport took the first step in spackling itself back together in Saturday night's Gainsco Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
With less than a month of preparation, eight drivers from five teams that competed in once-rival Champ Car last year merged almost seamlessly into a newly unified series. That was until one driver with a former Champ Car team took out the leader with eight laps left.
This thing took a long time to break. It's not going to mend in one night.
Pole-sitter Scott Dixon passed the damaged car of Tony Kanaan on a restart with three laps left, running off from Marco Andretti by 0.5828 seconds to give Chip Ganassi Racing its fourth straight win at Homestead.
Kanaan took advantage of Andretti's apparent misread of a rookie to grab the lead with 40 laps left. He held it through the final round of green-flag pit stops with 20 to go but lost it in his own encounter with a newcomer when Ernesto Viso of HVM spun alone in front of him with eight to go.
Viso said he had a punctured tire. Kanaan had a right front tire askew after contact and, though he was able to maintain pace under caution, he dipped out of the way when racing resumed. He finished eighth.
"I've been around a long time and the race is not finished until the checkered flag," Kanaan said. "This was a misfortune, yes, but how many times have I won races because some other guy was unlucky?"
Andretti was second, followed by Dan Wheldon (who won the previous three Homestead races), Helio Castroneves and Ed Carpenter. Oriol Servia, in 12th, was the top transitional driver.
For Dixon, who lost the 2007 title when he ran out of fuel on the last lap of the season, sympathy was somewhat hard to find.
"We were catching him quick," Dixon said. "It would have been close at the end. I think Marco and TK probably had little better cars but we came through with the win and that's what counts."
Andretti led 85 of 200 laps, almost twice as many as he did in all of 2007. But he ceded to Kanaan after trying to pass Mario Moraes in the high line he'd run all night as the newcomer took the same line to get out of the way. Neither Moraes, of Dale Coyne Racing nor Viso actually raced in Champ Car.
The competence of the eight transitioning drivers, specifically the four who had never raced on an oval, was a topic of great interest coming in. But though Dixon called Kanaan's incident "a damn shame" and "a silly little mistake," he said he had more problems Saturday with pre-existing IRL drivers.
"To be fair, I think you'd be doing an injustice to critique them," Wheldon said.
And Dixon all but refused to call this win historic.
"It's hard to look at it that way because we haven't really given the other guys a fair shot, coming in and learning it as quickly as possible," he said. "I think next year is the year."