SPARTA — There were nights this season when IndyCar veteran Ed Carpenter would hop in his trailer following another ho-hum race, flip on the replay and fight to stay awake.
"It was hard for me to watch," Carpenter said. "There were races where we just didn't put on a good show. It's hard for them to even make it entertaining."
Taking a second look at Saturday night's Kentucky 300 could be just as difficult for Carpenter to sit through, but for an entirely different reason.
Ryan Briscoe nipped Carpenter by 0.162 seconds at the finish line to dash Carpenter's hopes of picking up his first career victory in a race IndyCar officials hope will quiet critics who complain the open-wheel series has gotten too boring.
For a night anyway, the series delivered the kind of thrills that have been lacking this year.
The closest finish in the 10-year history of the race offered proof that the handful of changes IndyCar implemented last week worked to create a more competitive environment.
Briscoe and Carpenter spent the last 10 laps running side-by-side, and the top nine cars were separated by less than two seconds in a race that featured 20 lead changes and produced the second-fastest race in series history.
"The old IRL is back," said Tony Kanaan, who finished third a week after suffering burns to his face in a cockpit fire at Edmonton.
The drivers gave much of the credit to IndyCar president of competition and operations Brian Barnhart, who approved a series of aerodynamic and engine modifications last week that allowed teams a little more wiggle room with how they set their cars up.
"It was kind of what we expected and hoped for," Barnhart said. "Certainly what we saw tonight was very good."
The most noticeable change came in the form of the "Push to Pass" button, a feature that allowed drivers to get a series of 12-second horsepower boosts throughout the race. Briscoe and Carpenter saved some of their 20-boost allotment for the final miles, with Briscoe hitting the button halfway through the last lap, a move that seemed to give him just enough momentum to slip by Carpenter.
"I was just hitting that button," Briscoe said. "I knew I could keep using it every lap until the finish. So I knew it was going to be closer."
Carpenter, looking for his first win in 94 career starts, kept mashing the button like an enthusiastic video game player. He didn't even bother waiting through the 10-second blackout following each boost, instead hitting the button constantly while trying to keep Briscoe at bay.
"I was just pushing it in that 10-second window that it couldn't work, waiting for it to come back on," he said.
The button, however, doesn't deserve all the credit. The aerodynamic changes provided more downforce, allowing the cars to handle better throughout the 11/2-mile oval. Carpenter, who's not used to such tight battles at the front, didn't budge while trying to keep his inside line.
"I had a good car," Carpenter said. "That's the most comfortable that I've felt in traffic in quite some time."
His performance gives hope that one-car teams like Vision Racing can now compete in a series dominated by the Big Three teams of Penske Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Green Racing.
Vision Racing actually started the year as a two-car operation but couldn't find enough sponsorship money to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay in its second car.
Things haven't been any sunnier on the management side. Vision Racing owner and series luminary Tony George was ousted from his post as CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in June after 19 years on the job, told his time would be better spent with his race team. George is Carpenter's stepfather.
"This year hasn't been a very good year for our team," said Carpenter, who entered the race 14th in points. "It's been a rough couple months for our family. Tonight definitely makes everything feel better."
The task now will be carrying the momentum forward. The changes might not make such a difference at next week's visit to Mid-Ohio, but the strides taken on Saturday night didn't go unnoticed.
Former IndyCar series champion Sam Hornish Jr., now a regular on the NASCAR circuit, watched from the site of Sunday's NASCAR race at Pocono and admitted he liked what he saw.
"It was a pretty good race," he said. "You saw a lot of new faces up there that you haven't seen up there. ... Obviously it's something that they needed to do to get the competition on the 1½ -mile oval back to where it used to be when they were drawing a lot of fans and getting TV ratings, so it's headed in the right direction I believe."