By Andrew Charman
Buddy Rice did not just conquer the Argent Mortgage Indy 300 at the superfast Kansas Speedway , he dominated it. Or at least Rahal-Letterman Racing did, for while Rice's performance was of top quality, earning him membership of the 2004 double win club alongside Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon (except of course that Rice's 'other' win so far this year is the Indy 500), he came within five thousandths of a second of losing it to his hugely impressive team-mate Vitor Meira.
The race got underway with the 1.5-mile speedway seeing its coolest temperatures for some years, which some thought might throw out many teams' tyre tactics. From pole position Buddy Rice's #15 Rahal-Letterman G Force-Honda immediately assumed the lead, but the yellows were already flying as Scott Sharp spun and collected Tora Takagi, putting both in the wall. Takagi's #12 Pioneer Mo Nunn Racing Dallara-Toyota made it back to the pits with damaged suspension, while the nose of Sharp's #8 Kelley Racing version was history, both cars out for the day. “We all stacked up and I turned instead of run into someone,” said a disappointed Sharp.
The green flew on lap 6 and the leaders ran three-wide to turn one, Tony Kanaan's #11 Andretti-Green G Force-Honda moving ahead from second on the grid, Rice slotting into second chased by his team-mate Vitor Meira's #17 car. Meira, who is only driving on a race-to-race basis with the Rahal-Letterman team pending the recovery of injured number one driver Kenny Brack, has been growing more confident with every outing, and today would be another supremely impressive performance, suggesting that if as is increasingly rumoured Brack decides not to return, Bobby Rahal will need little time to decide on a permanent replacement.
By lap 25 the lead trio were being closed on by fourth-placed Tomas Sheckter's Panther Racing Dallara-Chevrolet, while Rice was shaping up to attack Kanaan for the lead. Further back the self-run #5 G Force-Honda of Adrian Fernandez was involved in a frantic dice for eighth spot with this year's top IRL Brit Dan Wheldon's #26 Andretti-Green G Force-Honda, the pair running two-wid e for much of the lap.
Scheckter finally took Meira on lap 31, and a lap later found a way past Rice as well, the clearly inspired South African immediately setting about leader Kanaan. Several laps of two-wide racing ensued, and as Scheckter continued to be frustrated Rice was able to benefit, snatching second back on lap 42.
Green flag pit stops began on lap 52, and proved disastrous for Wheldon whose fuel hose refused to detach and tipped over the pitlane tank. Up at the front the protagionists remained the same, except that it was now the amazing Meira who was all over Kanaan for the lead. He was past by lap 70, just as the leaders started finding their way through the backmarkers, and once ahead simply drove away, building up a five-second advantage by lap 100, half distance.
Second by now was Rice, while behind third-placed Kanaan Scheckter was disputing fourth spot with Fernandez. But it all went wrong for Tomas on lap 108 when his Chevy motor spluttered, a Panther Racing miscue having left it out of fuel. Scheckter made it back to the pits for the vital fluid, but then compounded his problems by killing the engine as he restarted. His reward for such a competitive first half of the race would be a 15th place finish four laps down.
Meanwhile all the leaders had made their second stops, these proving frustrating for Meira who lost out to both Rice and Kanaan. Running close together in fourth, fifth and sixth were Fernandez and Andretti-Green team-mates Bryan Herta and Dario Franchitti, the Scot coming increasingly into the picture as the race wore on. Matters remained stable through what were expected to be the final round of fuel stops, but within five laps of their conclusion the second yellow of the day was out as the #20 Patrick Racing Dallara-Chevrolet of Jeff Simmons ran into Kosuke Matsuura's #55 Fernandez G Force-Honda between turns one and two, both smacking the wall.
The green flew with just 14 laps left, Meira back in second and seemingly with no qualms about going after his team-leader. The final 10 laps served up edge of the seat action as the two fought two-wide for the win, Meira actually leading a couple of laps and team boss Rahal no doubt losing most of his fingernails. In the end Meira lost out where it really counted, the finish line on lap 200, but he did so by a hair's-breadth. The 0.0051 of a second margin was officially the second closest finish in IRL history (the closest was 0.0024 of a sec at Chicagoland in 2002) and the day did produce one record, the 169 laps of green-flag racing the longest in IRL history.
“It's great being able to race each other cleanly,” grinned Rice in victory lane. “It's fun being able to race like that,” whereas Meira summed the duel up eloquently. “The last 10 laps felt like 100,” he said. “I wanted the win pretty bad, but not to the point to do anything stupid.'
Kanaan took third ahead of Franchitti and Herta. Tony was not over-happy with a passing move by Rice where the Andretti-Green driver thought there wasn't enough room, but mindful of the big picture. “It's a long championship and we just have to keep thinking points, points, points,” he said. With good reason – he carries a 28 point advantage over team-mate Wheldon into the next round at Nashville in two weeks' time. Rice is a further 25 back in a battle that is shaping up nicely…