But there were unpleasant scenes after the race as a confrontation between Tony Kanaan and Sam Hornish sparked a pit lane brawl.
It began after the pair twice made contact during the race.
At the start Helio Castroneves maintained his lead from pole position despite the close and aggressive attention of Scott Dixon.
Dan Wheldon made a strong start, moving up to seventh, but he was passed by Sam Hornish and Darren Manning on the second lap.
The top three of Castroneves, Dixon and Dario Franchitti drew ahead as one, with Tony Kanaan in fourth 6.4s adrift of Franchitti by lap 14. Next time around the top three pitted together – and came back out in the same order.
Dixon looked racy again, trying hard to pass Castroneves, until suddenly the Brazilian’s Penske snapped sideways at the final turn and he hit the wall hard. That shunt on lap 20 – the one-third distance point – caused the first safety car period of the day.
Few drivers took the opportunity to pit – may having recently been in – Marco Andretti (fourth) and Danica Patrick (tenth) the only two from the top ten that did.
The race restarted on lap 23 but a spin by AJ Foyt IV caused another safety car period. This time a raft of drivers pitted including Dixon, Franchitti, Kanaan, Hornish and Manning.
It split the leaders into two distinct groups with Vitor Meira and Dan Wheldon leading six other drivers that had stayed out, with Dixon ninth first among those yet to pit.
The racing got under way again on lap 26 and Dixon quickly moved past Sarah Fisher to take eighth, followed by Kanaan and Franchitti. Two laps later Dixon displaced Carpenter but Kanaan mis-cued his passing attempt and team mate Franchitti overtook the pair of them.
It got worse for Kanaan on lap 30 when Hornish pushed him wide and both the Penske driver and Manning passed him.
Suddenly on lap 32 Meira’s Panther Racing car was coasting to a halt. Another safety car period began and Wheldon moved into first place.
But Wheldon swiftly fell victim to the misfortune that had already claimed two other leaders. As the drivers dashed for the pits Wheldon’s stop was fumbled, dropping him to 15th.
At the third restart on lap 36 Andretti led Rice and Dixon but the former pair would have to pit earlier than the Ganassi racing driver. Sure enough Rice pitted on lap 42, Andretti the next time around and after Dixon made his stop the New Zealander remained in the lead.
Hornish moved up to second and Andretti pulled over to let Franchitti into third in accordance with team orders.
Manning’s final pit stop left him eighth but Kosuke Matsuura and Wheldon passed him on his first lap out of the pits. Wheldon later passed Matsuura for what became seventh place.
On the final tour Kanaan squeezed past team mate Andretti. But it was Dixon who romped home to take a third consecutive win at the Watkins Glen circuit he has made his own.
But if Dixon’s win was smart, Franchitti’s conservative third on a day when there was little better to be hard was the kind of useful points that builds championships.
What was clearly not smart was Kanaan’s stunt on the way back to the pits as he swung across into the side of Hornish’s car – Hornish having run into Kanaan during the race.
After they arrived in the pits Hornish strode over to Kanaan’s car and appeared to mockingly applause his rival. Several crew members were wrestled to the floor in the chaos that followed.
They’ll soon get the opportunity to sort out their rivalry on the track again – next week the series returns to oval racing at the Nashville Superspeedway.
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