Sam Hornish Jr kept up his - and the revitalised Chevrolet's - late-season run of form by winning at California Speedway and maintain a close five-way fight for the Indy Racing League title.

The reigning champion turned up the heat on his rivals by taking his third victory in the last four races, breaking Jimmy Vasser's record speed of 207.151mph to establish a new mark for the fastest race in motorsports history. It was Hornish's second consecutive win on the two-mile oval and tallied his record eleventh career IRL victory.

"We could pull away once we got to the front, but it was hard to get there," Hornish said in the winner's circle, "The engine and car were working real well, but we didn't have any telemetry, so I was telling the pit crew what the fuel consumption was. We were getting as good or better mileage than anyone out there."

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It was a punishing day for drivers and engines at California Speedway with temperatures in the high 90s, track temperatures approaching 140 degrees and a wilting desert wind. The 400-mile endurance test was slowed by only one caution period that lasted six laps but, despite the adverse conditions, the Chevy Indy V8 again had a perfect reliability record.

"It was hot and windy just like we thought it would be," Hornish explained, "The wind was making the car really loose coming off of turn two. That was something we battled all day long. Hot, slick conditions, I like that!"

Hornish's record pace eclipsed the 197.897mph mark he set at Kentucky Speedway in August while en route to his first victory of the year with the new Chevy Gen IV - and engine that has now taken three wins and two second places since its introduction at Michigan mid-season.

"Early on, I thought it would be a lot closer than it was," Hornish recalled, "With all the green-flag pit-stops, it was important to get in and out quickly. I knew as long as we were out in front that's where we needed to be because our car could work in traffic where a lot of other people couldn't."

Hornish led four times for a total of 30 laps. The two-time IRL champion started tenth on the grid, but moved to the front for the first time on lap 43, with passes on both the high and low lines. He took the lead for good on lap 186 with an outside pass around title rival Scott Dixon and then stretched his advantage to 0.3563 seconds at the conclusion of 200 laps.

Hornish will now go into the season-ending Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on 12 October having climbed into fourth place in the title race. The Panther Racing driver has 448 points, 19 behind new co-leaders Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves, who are tied with 467, with a maximum of 52 on the line in the season finale.

"Everyone on this team wants to win and we are committed to doing the best we can," Hornish declared, "That's what made my decision [to leave for Penske in 2004] so hard because these guys give 110 per cent all the time. We're going to keep working away at it. We don't know if it can be done, but we're sure going to try for it."

Dixon finished second to Hornish for the second straight event, having been pipped by the yellow Panther car in Chicago two weeks ago. The #9 Toyota-powered Target Chip Ganassi car was followed by another title hopeful - Tony Kanaan - who complete the podium trio in his Team 7-Eleven Dallara-Honda.

Despite stating on the front row, Dixon found that he could not prevent Hornish from coming through to take the lead in the final stages of the race, but was happy enough to have regained a share of the points lead with just one race to run.

"It was good day for us - we gained a lot of points today and now we're tied with Helio in the championship," the Kiwi admitted, "The car was really good on new tyres, but we struggled a little on old ones. Team Target did a great job in the pits today, though, and we made up a lot of spots on that last stop.

"Sam had a great car and he was going to be very tough to get there at the end, but we'll head on to Texas and see what happens. We're going to need to finish ahead of these guys again and it's going to be a great race for the fans."

Kanaan's third-place finish lifted him to third in the championship standings, with 460 points. The Brazilian started fifth in the field, but immediately moved to within striking distance of the race lead. Under green-flag conditions, Kanaan never ran outside the top-five - a group which frequently comprised four of the five championship contenders.

With only one caution period during the race, green-flag pit stops became a crucial component, and proved to be a distinct advantage for the 28-year old as his crew gained him three spots on the race track during their first effort on lap 43 and continued to improve his track position one spot at a time throughout the remainder of
the 200-lap event.

"The whole Team 7-Eleven did a great job," Kanaan said afterwards, "I ask a lot of all those guys and they give me everything I need. I've really got to thank Honda, too. They have really stepped up everything for us, as well, and are giving us great engines. This was a great team effort - it wasn't just me.

"We have two more weeks to work - two more weeks to work on our car, two more weeks to work on engines. This is what we had to do. The championship is wide open. Let's go to Texas. We'll get them in Texas!"

Andretti Green Racing team-mate and rookie star Dan Wheldon finished fourth, tying a career best as he finished ahead of Dixon's team-mate Tomas Scheckter. It was a disappointing day for Penske and its two championship contenders Castroneves and Gil de Ferran, however.

After starting from the pole, Castroneves slipped to sixth by the finish, blaming a mis-timed final stop for fuel for his failure to be in the shake-up at the end.

"All the cars were pretty equal today but, unfortunately, we came in before the rest of the lead pack on the final round of stops and took on more fuel than they did," the Brazilian explained, "Then, in the final laps of the race I lost the draft and I couldn't catch the leaders.

"Before then, the car was handling well throughout the race, but we just didn't have the speed to win. The good news is that we're going into the final race tied for the lead in the championship.

"There are five guys in the title race, so Texas will be very exciting for everyone. I have a feeling it will come down to the final lap of the season, and may the best man win."

de Ferran fared even more badly than his young compatriot, taking 15th place at the flag and dropping behind Hornish in the points race.

"It was a long hot day for everyone, and unfortunately my car wasn't handling well at all, which made it even more difficult," the Indy 500 winner revealed, "I spent most of my time just struggling to stay in the race and I've got to thank my crew for doing a great job in the pits to keep me out there.

"In hindsight, we probably didn't have enough experience with the G-Force in this race trim - however, we took a chance and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Certainly, we're a long shot for the title now, so we'll have to depend on everyone else's results. But, we'll do everything we can in Texas to get the job done. Hopefully, we'll have a more competitive car and we'll just see where we end up."

The top ten was rounded out by Wheldon's rookie title rival Roger Yasukawa, veterans Scott Sharp and Al Unser Jr, and Alex Barron, who brought the Chevy-powered Red Bull Cheever entry its second straight top ten finish. There was bad luck, however, for Bryan Herta, who had finished on the podium last time out, and Kenny Brack, who had started on the front row after crashing out in Chicago, both of whom suffered - Herta crashing out after only 88 laps and Brack finishing 15 laps down. Richie Hearn, standing in for Buddy Lazier at Hemelgarn was the only other retirement.