Kanaan takes advantage as Rahal squad slips up
18 July 2004
By Andrew Charman
Tony Kanaan extended his Indy Racing League points lead in the season's final evening race at Nashville Superspeedway, on a day when he did not have the best car. The Rahal-Letterman squad of Vitor Meira and Buddy Rice dominated the race only to be robbed by poor pitwork and an unlucky clash of wheels.
The front row for the Firestone Indy 200 at this 200mph 1.33-mile oval was an all Rahal-Letterman affair, Buddy Rice looking for his second successive win in the #15 G Force-Honda and with his increasingly impressive team-mate Vitor Meira alongside in the #17 car. And as the green flag flew in the early evening sunlight Rice ducked into the lead, only for Meira to take him on the second corner. By the end of lap one he was back to third, Dan Wheldon's #26 Andretti-Green Dallara-Honda leading the chase of Meira. Tony Kanaan in the #11 Andretti-Green car briefly had a look at Rice, but soon he had his hands full of Sam Hornish, up from ninth in the #6 Penske Dallara-Toyota, the Marlboro-backed car going past on lap seven.
Meira was soon over a second ahead of Wheldon but his progress was interrupted on lap 10 by the evening's first yellow for debris. Not surprisingly most cars stayed out, but Mark Taylor headed pitwards, having his first drive in the #13 Access Motorsports G Force-Honda after being dumped by the Panther Racing squad.
As the race went green again Meira resumed his lead and the now more awake Rice took Wheldon for second, Kanaan, Hornish and Tomas Schecker's #4 Panther Racing Dallara-Chevrolet following. A spectator's drink can sparked a second debris yellow on lap 35, just right for the drivers worried about tyre wear on the IRL's only concrete oval. Meira won the race out, but Hornish beat Rice for second, Wheldon and Darren Manning's #10 Target Chip Ganassi G Force-Toyota lining up behind.
The green flew on lap 44 and Hornish missed the jump, losing out to both Rice and Kanaan while further back Scheckter's car ran wide and slowed, dropping back to 20th. Up front it was again the Rahal-Letterman show, Rice slowly closing the deficit to his team-mate Meira, this pair the class of the field with Kanaan 1.2 seconds back by the 50-lap quarter-distance mark. Meanwhile Hornish was struggling, and on lap 58 got out of the groove to be instantly taken by Wheldon, Manning and Townsend Bell in the #2 Panther Dallara-Chevrolet. But within two laps the yellow was out again as Ed Carpenter got off line and wiped his #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara-Chevrolet along the wall.
Everyone pitted under the caution, and once again Rahal-Letterman sent its cars out ahead, Adrian Fernandez enjoying a superb stop to get his own G Force-Honda out ahead of Kanaan, Wheldon, Hornish and Manning. Two cars remained in pitlane; Dario Franchitti's foul season continued at his home track with a broken gearbox on his Andretti-Green Dallara, while Jacques Lazier suffered a broken driveshaft on the Patrick Racing Dallara-Chevrolet.
The green flew on lap 74 for a frantic restart with three-wide racing down the backstretch, and as everyone sorted themselves out Meira held off Rice with Wheldon third, Fernandez fourth and Hornish quickly working his way up to fifth as Kanaan slipped back. Now the race began to settle down, Meira leading past half-distance with a two second advantage over Rice, Wheldon more than four seconds further back.
The yellow was flying again on lap 108 as Tomas Scheckter's frantic race ended with a hard hit against the wall. As he walked away everyone else headed down pit road, and Meira's great day came to a stuttering halt as he was signalled to pull away before the fuel hose had been detached. In the confusion he killed the engine, and then had to come back down pit road. As they went green on lap 120 Rice was in the lead, Meira back in 15th.
Rice led Wheldon and Hornish, but the action was further back, Meira slicing his way forward to pass five cars at once, almost banging wheels with Mark Taylor in the process. Within five laps Meira was seventh, while up ahead Wheldon dropped back, taken by Hornish and Kanaan in successive laps.
Rice continued to stretch his lead over Hornish, and by lap 140 was 4.5 seconds ahead, while Meira's progress was delayed by several laps trying to pass the Penske-Dallara of Helio Castroneves. Once past into sixth on lap 145 the Rahal-Letterman car quickly attached itself to the second to fifth-place pack, and soon dispatched Townsend Bell, who in turn was enjoying his best run since replacing Mark Taylor at Panther Racing.
Just as it seemed the last pit stops of the night would be under green Bryan Herta's overworked tyres gave up and sent his Andretti-Green Dallara up the track and into the wall. A fast pit stop was vital, and Dan Wheldon's crew reacted best, getting him out ahead of Rice, Hornish and Kanaan, Meira's crew again costing him as he dropped to ninth.
Cleaning up took some time, not helped by AJ Foyt IV's Dallara stopping on the track, and the green flew with just 23 laps left. Rice immediately ducked inside Wheldon, the two touched, Wheldon went sideways in front of Rice and then amazingly both straightened up again. Kanaan snatched the opportunity to nip past Rice, in the process smashing the Rahal car's front wing, and with debris on the circuit the yellow flew again. Rice was forced to pit for a new nose and all of a sudden Rahal-Letterman's day had turned very sour.
They went green with 18 left, Kanaan and Hornish immediately rounding the clearly struggling Wheldon, and seconds later the Brit brought out caution number seven as his right rear tyre distintegrated, Dan keeping the car out of the wall and making pit road. So we were ready for our third shootout, Kanaan ahead of Hornish, Manning and Castroneves, as the green flew with 12 to go. Kanaan led the way, the two Penskes chasing, and Hornish quickly closed in. With five to go the first four were nose-to-tail, Onto the last lap Hornish closed right in but Kanaan blatantly blocked him off, the Penske car's front wing tapping the Andretti-Green machine's rear tyre but Kanaan holding on to win.
“I knew we were strong, and I just needed to hold (Sam Hornish Jr.) up, and that is what I did,” said Kanaan afterwards. “I had to finish in the top three, and they gave me the win, so I'll take it. Everybody was driving aggressive, including myself. I saw some crazy stuff going on, but races like this where it is tough to pass, people race hard.”
If Hornish was angry at the last lap block, he didn't show it, saying; “It was the last lap, and I knew if I didn't make it work that I would have to get way out of the throttle and that someone might get a run on me, so I wanted to save it. I just didn't get the job done.”
Castroneves was third, Manning fourth and Bell an impressive fifth ahead of the disappointed Rice and Taylor, the British rookie just delighted to finish. Rice was philosophical; “Dan Wheldon didn't want me to go to the inside, and he pushed my car onto the apron,” the Rahal man said. “We touched. We should have had a solid finish tonight, but there are some people who think otherwise. I think there should have been racing room and they didn't want to give any.”
For the man taking the real bitter pill, you had to go down to 12th, Vitor Meira struggling home in a car stuck in fourth gear to finish a race he should have won. “Everyone is human, and you make mistakes,” he said. “This Rahal Letterman team is good, and we'll be back at the front of the field again. I'm disappointed of course. Overall, we lost the race tonight, and I am disappointed about that.”
Kanaan was so happy at extending his points lead that he bust a driveshaft doing doughnuts for the crowd. But many of those spectators wondered if that blocking of Hornish should have been punished, and knew the Andretti-Green driver had been lucky. Kanaan has extended his points advantage over team-mate Wheldon to more than 100 points, but few are betting against Rahal-Letterman leading the way when the series heads for its first visit to the Milwaukee Mile in eight days time.