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Nazareth – Dan's delight as Penske throws it away

30 August 2004

By Andrew Charman

Roger Penske's team dominated the last race at the track he built, but a combination of bad luck passing backmarkers and a pit road shambles sent the Captain away from Indy Racing League's 100th event at Nazareth empty-handed. Andretti-Green Racing's Dan Wheldon was more than ready to take the win, leading home Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti to further cement Andretti-Green Racing's hold on this series.

The last Sunday in August at Nazareth speedway provided a bitter-sweet occasion. For while the Firestone Indy 225 was the Indy Racing League's 100th event in a history stretching just over eight years, it would also be the last at Nazareth's flat one-mile tri-oval, the speedway due to close its doors at the end of the meeting. Roger Penske especially had reason to reflect, as the man who had resurrected the facility back in 1987. Penske had seen much success at his local track, and looked potentially set for a grand finale, with both last year's winner Helio Castroneves and team-mate Sam Hornish Jr alongside each other on the front row. But the more important row was the second, occupied by Andretti-Green Racing with championship leader Tony Kanaan in third and on-form team-mate Dario Franchitti alongside. Though with an entire 22-car grid covered by a mere second, a winner was hard to predict.

Castroneves' #3 Marlboro-backed Dallara-Toyota duly led Hornish in the identical #6 car around the first of 225 laps chased by Kanaan, Franchitti and the rest, Tomas Scheckter leaping five places to scrap mightily over sixth with Scott Dixon. The Penskes soon opened a gap, and by lap 10 the leader was lapping last-placed Ed Carpenter. Hornish took the opportunity to try a move that didn't quite come off while Kanaan's #11 Dallara-Honda was also able to close back in, Franchitti's #27 machine dropping behind Adrian Fernandez in his own #5 G Force-Honda.

Lap 24 saw both Penskes trying to lap 19th-placed AJ Foyt IV, eventually going either side of the #14 AJ Foyt Racing Dallara-Toyota and Hornish almost stealing the lead as Kanaan hung on behind. Franchitti was closing back in on Fernandez, especially as Dario's Andretti-Green team-mate Dan Wheldon had moved his #26 car into sixth as Scheckter started to struggle. Also struggling was Buddy Rice, the series second-place holder looking unlikely to close the 68-point deficit to Kanaan as his Rahal-Letterman G Force-Honda ran in 10th.

Lap 55 saw Scheckter in the pits for a wing adjustment, losing two laps, while Castroneves had now used traffic to open a six-second gap to Hornish. But three laps later the yellow flew as Mark Taylor clashed with the driver who a few weeks ago took his Panther Racing seat, Townsend Bell, the Englishman's Access Motorsports G Force-Honda slamming the wall. Everyone headed for the first fuel and tyre stops, Castroneves retaining the lead but Kanaan leapfrogging Hornish for second as Wheldon, Fernandez and Franchitti lined up behind.

The green flew on lap 71 and Castroneves again drew away, Hornish similarly unable to do anything about Kanaan while Wheldon stuck to the tail of the second Penske car. By lap 100 the leader enjoyed a consistent gap of seven tenths of a second, while Hornish was now close in behind Kanaan, Wheldon just behind watching matters unfold. It happened quickly, Hornish finding a way around Kanaan and quickly closing on his team-mate as Castroneves encountered heavy lapped traffic. The G-Force Honda of Kosuke Matsuura proved Helio's undoing, forcing him to back off the throttle and take avoiding action as both Hornish and Kanaan went by. Incensed, Castroneves went by Kanaan again only to have to check up badly behind Felipe Giaffone's Dreyer & Reinbold Dallara-Chevrolet, plummeting to fifth behind Wheldon and Franchitti and then losing another spot to Fernandez.

Townsend Bell initiated the second round of stops on lap 129 but the leaders stretched their fuel in the hope of being able to run to the finish if the race should stay green. But the decision was made for them on lap 143 when Ed Carpenter did everybody a favour by smacking his slow #52 Cheever Racing Dallara-Chevrolet into the wall. Everyone headed for this week's pit road drama, as Hornish pulled away too quickly, ripping his fuel line out and sparking one of the IRL's frightening invisible methanol fires in the pit. It was soon out but there were also flames on the car and Hornish was forced to return to have the fire put out.

So on lap 160 Wheldon led an Andretti-Green train back to green, Kanaan and Franchitti behind, Castroneves in fifth behind Fernandez and Hornish back in 12th, only to suffer a drive-through penalty for the pit road incident, losing him a lap. But the caution was quickly out again, on lap 166, for debris, Castroneves and the closely following Rice almost running into each other as the field checked up.

The green flew on lap 171 and Fernandez briefly jumped it, realising his mistake, slowing up and dropping from fourth to sixth while Rice nipped past Castroneves into fourth and some possibly vital extra potential points. Up front Wheldon opened a gap to Kanaan, Franchitti chasing the series leader and also well aware of the closing Rice. But then the yellow flew again as Bell clashed with Scott Sharp's #8 Kelley Racing Dallara-Toyota, both cars slapping the turn four wall.

They restarted with 30 laps to go and Wheldon again out-accelerated Kanaan, quickly opening a gap, but Franchitti was forced to defend hard from Rice. This time he couldn't drop the Rahal-Letterman car, but Buddy had not quite enough to force a way past. Over the final laps Wheldon simply stroked it home, taking his third win of the year three seconds clear of Kanaan. Mind you Tony wasn't unhappy, extending his points advantage to 72, and now over Wheldon, while Franchitti completed the Andretti-Green podium lock-out ahead of the frustrated Rice.

“Biggest win of my career” grinned team boss Michael Andretti as Wheldon performed doughnuts on the frontstretch. Dan meanwhile praised the team “They got me out fast and helped me win this race – I'm glad I've got the same number of wins as Tony and there's still three races to go.”

First of those races is at Chicagoland in a fortnight, and while Kanaan is very much in control at the head of the points, Wheldon's consistent success ensures that this title race is not quite over yet…



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