NASCAR

Houston problems were so very IndyCar

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HOUSTON (AP)

(Eds: Edits throughout to clarify sequence of issues. With AP Photos.)By JENNA FRYERAP Auto Racing Writer

It's fitting, really, that Dario Franchitti's frightening crash on the final lap of the Grand Prix of Houston is the one thing this season that has gotten IndyCar some mainstream attention.

Far be it for the beleaguered series to draw any interest for something other than a crash that injured 13 fans, an IndyCar official and left the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner hospitalized with a fractured spine and broken ankle.

The accident was replayed on television stations across the country and even made a morning show or two on Monday. It came with a hitch, though: At least one network mistakenly referred to IndyCar as NASCAR, and instead of recognizing Franchitti for his impressive racing resume, more than a few chose to identify him as the ex-husband of actress Ashley Judd.

That's so IndyCar.

Then again, so was the entire visit to Houston, where IndyCar raced for the first time since 2007. Despite a dedicated promoter and strong corporate backing in title sponsor Shell-Pennzoil, the event was plagued before IndyCar even got on the track.

Construction on the course around Reliant Park could not begin until after the Houston Texans' Sept. 29 game, so nobody had a clue there was a huge bump in the asphalt where Turn 1 would eventually be located. Once the bump was discovered, IndyCar was forced to delay track activity while it searched for a solution.

The temporary fix was to postpone qualifying and erect a chicane of tires that would force drivers go around the bump during two Friday practice sessions. Everything was fine - until Josef Newgarden hit the chicane, knocking it into the path of points leader Helio Castroneves. He clipped it in the first of three different practice incidents, setting the stage for a disastrous weekend.

Track officials spent all night Friday grinding the bump, but it never solved the problem.

And after a gearbox issue in Saturday's race trimmed Castroneves' 49-point lead over Dixon down to eight, that bump might have cost the Brazilian the championship.

Dixon saw Castroneves run over the bump Sunday - ''He hit really hard going through the Turn 1 kink there,'' Dixon said - and Castroneves essentially bottomed out when his car landed. The force broke his gearbox and sent him to the garage.

Castroneves now trails Dixon by 25 points with only the Oct. 19 season finale remaining.

Dixon wasn't immune from one of those ''only in IndyCar'' moments, either.

Addressing the bump on Friday altered the weekend schedule, and qualifying for Sunday's race was pushed to Sunday morning. But it rained, IndyCar canceled the session and set the field by entrant points. Because Castroneves had been penalized earlier this season, Dixon's Chip Ganassi Racing team led the entrant points on Sunday morning and so Dixon was celebrated as the pole winner.

But sometime after the official pole-winner presentation, when the official sticker was placed on his car and after Dixon held a news conference to talk about starting the race from the pole, somebody decided to read the rule book. That's when it was discovered that a doubleheader weekend isn't split in determining the entrant points, and Castroneves was actually the pole-sitter.

Oh. Of course.

This all happened even though president of competition Derrick Walker was there Sunday. He'd missed Friday and Saturday while running his ALMS team, an agreement reached when he took the job and continues even though he has admitted IndyCar is understaffed and needs significant technology upgrades.

Almost a year after the Hulman & Co. board of directors ousted CEO Randy Bernard, little progress has been made with IndyCar. In fact, some might argue the series has taken a step or two backward.

The board elevated member Mark Miles in late November to CEO of Hulman & Co., but not much has been accomplished so far under his watch beyond the recently announced road course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Conversely, the race at Baltimore is falling off the schedule after three years, there appears to be questions about the future of the event in Brazil and the 2014 schedule has yet to be released. Series sponsor Izod is leaving at the end of the season, and Miles has yet to fill the role of head of IndyCar and IMS' commercial division - the person who would likely be trying to replace Izod.

Miles has been turned down at least once for the job - by motorsports marketing executive Zak Brown - and former Ganassi executive Tom Garfinkel chose president and chief executive officer of the Miami Dolphins over any serious conversations with IndyCar.

It's going to be a tough position for Miles to fill because of the current structure. Miles is effectively in charge while day-to-day operations are split between Walker and the yet-to-be hired commercial person.

With two heads having equal power, it's almost certain that team owners would take sides and align themselves with one or the other. Remember, this is IndyCar and nobody is happy unless they are fighting.

And there's been a lot of fighting this year between drivers and race control, and it boiled over last month when Dixon was fined $30,000 for calling for the ouster of race director Beaux Barfield. Following Walker's first week on the job, Sebastian Saavedra was fined $30,000 for flashing his middle fingers at Marco Andretti, Will Power was placed on probation for throwing his gloves at Sebastien Bourdais and Bourdais was placed on probation for comments made toward officials on pit road.

It all seemed a bit excessive for actions that actually had fans talking about IndyCar.

But it wouldn't be IndyCar if it made any sense.

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