A new era in IRL IndyCar history dawned with Kiwi Scott Dixon claiming the victory laurels on his series debut in Sunday's Toyota Indy 300 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Dixon gave Toyota their maiden IRL victory on their debut in the series as he led Gil de Ferran across the line by a mere half a second following 200 laps of hard racing around the 1.5-mile Florida oval. The former CART driver took the lead on lap 147 and led the final 53 laps, the final 20 of which were carried out with de Ferran snapping at his heels.

Starting his first full season with the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, Dixon started the 300-mile affair from the outside of row six in his #9 G Force-Toyota and bided his time in the early going in a race where passing moves had to be timed implicitly on every occasion.

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As Andretti-Green Racing teammates Michael Andretti and polesitter Tony Kanaan disputed the lead during the opening 50 laps, Dixon moved into seventh place about half a lap behind the leaders as the first round of (green flag) pitstops approached.

At the head of the field it was clear that AGR and Marlboro Team Penske had the best chassis set-up at this time with Andretti, Kanaan, de Ferran and Helio Castroneves occupying the top four places throughout the opening 50 laps. Their Honda (AGR) and Toyota (MTP) power plants also seemed to offer better fuel consumption for as the downtrodden Chevrolet powered runners (led by Sam Hornish Jr) started making their first stops at the 50 lap mark, the leading quartet could wait until laps 56-57 before pulling onto pit road.

After the field had shuffled itself out de Ferran led Castroneves, a quick pitting Tomas Scheckter in the leading Target sponsored Ganassi owned G Force, Andretti, Kanaan, Dixon and Scott Sharp. Hornish Jr was the leading Chevy powered driver and was clinging grimly to a place on the lead lap in eighth position.

Following a lap three caution caused when rookie Scott Mayer backed into the turn two wall after contact with Shigeaki Hattori the race went green from laps 9-67 when debris was spotted and the field was slowed once again. Mindful of his fuel consumption issues Hornish chose to pit again but with only nine cars remaining on the lead lap, the damage was minimal.

The wily de Ferran appeared to have the race in his pocket at this point and used a couple of lapped cars to pull away from his pursuing teammate on the lap 77 restart. As de Ferran established a two-second cushion in the lead, Sharp was the man on the move, passing Dixon and Kanaan for fifth position before Jaques Lazier's turn four crash brought out the third caution period on lap 89 and sent everyone scurrying down pit road once again.

It was during this round of stops that Kanaan saw his chances evaporate, stalling his car and losing a great deal of track position despite only dropping to ninth. The Penske crew were as usual immaculate and their cars left pit road 1-2 although in reverse order as Castroneves' crew were just a little more immaculate than de Ferran's.

Not that their quick work mattered much for Helio missed his restart and was swamped by his teammate heading into turn one. Things got hairy for a moment as the two cars appeared to touch and with Helio's car unbalanced, de Ferran was through and away once again.

Behind these two yet more quick pit work had brought Scheckter out in third spot but he was soon passed by Andretti and then both Dixon and Hornish Jr in quick succession. Sharp dropped the South African youngster down to seventh but while one Target car was going backwards, the other was moving forwards.

On lap 114 Dixon passed Andretti for third and began closing the four-second gap to Castroneves. Bringing the Kelley Racing machine of Sharp with him Dixon cut into Castroneves' advantage over the next 20 laps until by lap 135 all three cars were within spitting distance of one another.

After several abortive attempts Dixon finally made a move stick going into turn three on lap 139, with Sharp following five laps later.

On lap 145, with 55 remaining, Robbie Buhl looped his Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Dallara-Chevrolet into the outside wall coming off turn two and brought out what out be the fourth and final caution period of the day. Conveniently this fell just within the final fuel window for most of the leaders, although not for Hornish Jr who less than five laps before the yellow had to pit under green for fuel and fell off the lead lap and out of contention.

While the Penske pit crew grabbed the limelight during the opening two segments of the race this time it was the turn of the Ganassi crew to shine as they turned Dixon around in near record time to bring him out in the lead.

The Penske boys were none too shabby themselves as de Ferran and Castroneves lined up second and third for the restart with Sharp fourth, Kanaan fifth, Andretti sixth, Scheckter seventh and a strangely subdued Franchitti eighth. Everybody else was a lap or more adrift and a non-factor for the win.

Really not even the other drivers on the lead lap were a serious factor for the win for as soon as the green flag waved on lap 155 Dixon was off and running, never to be caught.

Castroneves lost crucial momentum when Sharp tried to squeeze underneath him going into turn one on the restart lap for although his attempt was unsuccessful, Castroneves lost touch with de Ferran and couldn't remount a challenge.

In clear air Dixon was able to extend his lead over de Ferran to nearly three seconds as the laps wound down. However as the race entered its final 15 laps the leader began catching the tail end of what was still a considerably large pack of traffic (3 retirements from 21 starters).

As Dixon closed on the first group of cars, notably Tora Takagi and AJ Foyt IV, de Ferran moved closer to the rear of his rival, the gap down to one second. With ten laps to go it seemed more than likely that the experience of de Ferran would pay dividends as Dixon bobbled behind Takagi but then, with eight tours remaining the fearless Kiwi powered by both Foyt and Takagi. De Ferran couldn't clear the two lapped cars as cleanly and lost valuable ground.

That was de Ferran's only realistic challenge for victory even though he closed to within half a dozen car lengths of Dixon on the final lap, bringing down the final victory margin to 0.5752secs. After scoring his debut CART victory in just his third start two years ago at Nazareth, Dixon now becomes just the third driver to win on his IRL debut behind inaugural race winner Buzz Calkins and 2000 Indy 500 Champ Juan Montoya.

For the second year running at Homestead Marlboro Team Penske had to be content with the bottom two steps on the podium as Castroneves held off the late race attentions of his countryman Kanaan to give Toyota a clean sweep of the podium in a race that bears their name.

Sharp rounded out the top five after a fighting drive in his repaired #8 Dallara-Toyota and was just four seconds behind Dixon at the flag and ten seconds ahead of the sixth and seventh placed Andretti-Green Racing Dallara-Honda's of Andretti and Franchitti.

Andretti led the opening 13 laps in the #7 7-Eleven Dallara and although he showed that he has lost none of his oval racing skills with some very close, but clean racing, he could never get back on terms with the leaders after dropping top spot to Kanaan on lap 14.

Franchitti battled understeer throughout the weekend and was never himself at the track where he suffered the most serious injury of his career in 1999.

Scheckter faded away in the second half of the race and was a full 20 seconds behind his teammate at the end in eighth position although he was still the second best paced G Force finisher and displayed a new found maturity in that he didn't try to overdrive an ill-handling car and brought it safely home to the flag.

Mo Nunn Racing's Felipe Giaffone finally got the better of his teammate Takagi in what seemed like a race-long duel between the two and even held off a recovering, and none too pleased, Sam Hornish Jr for ninth position. Hornish Jr, who had previously been unbeaten at Homestead, had to settle for tenth place after a fighting drive against the odds.

Kenny Brack enjoyed a quiet return to the IRL with Team Rahal and came home two laps down in eleventh place; his deficit to Dixon not helped by a pair of green flag pitstops.

Roger Yasukawa was the leading rookie finisher in 14th position, two laps adrift while Sarah Fisher outpaced all other Chevrolet powered drivers except Hornish en-route to a gritty 15th. AJ Foyt IV finished 17th after a sensible drive on his series debut while Buhl, Lazier and Mayer were the only three retirees as the new season opened without a single race-ending mechanical failure.

The teams now have three weeks to take stock of the situation before they head to the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway.