By Andrew Charman
With the unique and extended challenge of the Indy 500 out of the way the Indy Racing League got back to normal with round five at the high-banked 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway, a track renowned for its speed, its two and even three-wide dices and its close finishes. The Bombadier 500-kilometre race was also the first night event of 2004, none of which bothered Tony Kanaan, the Andretti-Green driver most often out front in a typical Texas thriller and finally leading team-mate Dario Franchitti home for the win.
Dario Franchitti had never raced at Texas before yet set his first ever IRL pole position in the #27 Andretti-Green Racing Dallara with a speed of just under 210mph, leading Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice in the Rahal-Letterman G-Force and a pack of Honda-powered cars. As the green flew in the evening sunlight Franchitti took the lead of the 200-lap race as Rice and third-starter Tony Kanaan indulged in the first side-by-side racing of the night, action repeated right back down the field.
By lap 10 Franchitti was established up front, his Andretti-Green team-mate Kanaan under constant pressure from Rice, while impressive rookie Kosuke Matsuura led the main train in his Fernandez G-Force Honda. Lap 23 saw Kanaan take over top spot, Rice immediately following him past Franchitti's car. But almost immediately the caution flew to check for debris, resulting in Darren Manning's Target G-Force Toyota tagging its wing on the Cheever Dallara Chevrolet of Alex Barron. The entire field pitted for fuel, tyres and in Manning's case a new nose, but Kanaan's stop was tardy, Franchitti winning the race off pitlane to lead the field back to green.
Clearly there were no team orders in the Andretti-Green camp, for Kanaan went straight for the lead, the resultant five laps of side-by-side motoring stacking most of the field up close behind. But then the yellow flew again as AJ Foyt IV continued where he'd left off at Indy, tagging Ed Carpenter's Cheever Dallara Chevrolet and slamming his Dallara Honda into the wall hard to further exasperate his team-boss and grandfather, multi-champion AJ Foyt.
The green flew on lap 43, but briefly as Carpenter flew immediately into the wall, the rear end of his car briefly erupting into flame. As an angry Ed was helped out of the wreck the evidence suggested damage sustained in the Foyt incident had caused his accident. Several laps of caution followed, most cars pitting and when the green finally flew on lap 58. Kanaan headed Franchitti and Rice, while up to sixth was the third Andretti-Green car of championship leader Dan Wheldon, having started 12th.
Lap 69 saw Rice past Franchitti after several laps of trying, and Dario immediately came under pressure from Rice's team-mate Vitor Meira, the Rahal-Letterman car soon moving ahead only to be retaken by both Franchitti and Mark Taylor's Panther Racing Dallara Chevrolet. Taylor peeled off on lap 97 to initiate a series of green flag pitstops, and as they cycled through Matsuura enjoyed leading his first laps of the season, Sam Hornish, Greg Ray and Helio Castroneves also gaining some extra useful points for heading the field.
Castroneves was last to pit on lap 111, handing the lead back to Kanaan, three seconds ahead of Rice and Franchitti, in Texas terms a massive gap. But the gap was wiped out on lap 126 as Scott Sharp's Kelley Racing Dallara dipped down low, smoke trailing from its Toyota engine, and the resultant oil sent Mark Taylor into the wall, foul luck for the rookie who had shown very strongly.
Kanaan lost his lead to Rice in the resultant pitstops, but following the restart on lap 135 the Andretti-Green car had moved back ahead by turn 3. Meira held third, the Penske Dallara Toyota of Hornish steadily making its way up the field into fourth, chased by team-mate Castroneves with Franchitti splitting the two Marlboro cars. Dario was soon back to fourth but not able to relax, the top 15 cars covered by seven seconds.
As the race entered its final quarter Kanaan appeared to have the best package, but the field were closing up, stacking up two deep behind the leader. In the scrap Franchitti lost front end downforce and almost put the Target G-Force Toyota of Darren Manning into the wall, while Hornish went side-by-side with Rice for second, Meira looking for room outside both of them!