By Andrew Charman
Tony Kanaan extended his Indy Racing League points lead in the season's final evening race at Nashville Superspeedway, on a day when he did not have the best car. The Rahal-Letterman squad of Vitor Meira and Buddy Rice dominated the race only to be robbed by poor pitwork and an unlucky clash of wheels.
The front row for the Firestone Indy 200 at this 200mph 1.33-mile oval was an all Rahal-Letterman affair, Buddy Rice looking for his second successive win in the #15 G Force-Honda and with his increasingly impressive team-mate Vitor Meira alongside in the #17 car. And as the green flag flew in the early evening sunlight Rice ducked into the lead, only for Meira to take him on the second corner. By the end of lap one he was back to third, Dan Wheldon's #26 Andretti-Green Dallara-Honda leading the chase of Meira. Tony Kanaan in the #11 Andretti-Green car briefly had a look at Rice, but soon he had his hands full of Sam Hornish, up from ninth in the #6 Penske Dallara-Toyota, the Marlboro-backed car going past on lap seven.
Meira was soon over a second ahead of Wheldon but his progress was interrupted on lap 10 by the evening's first yellow for debris. Not surprisingly most cars stayed out, but Mark Taylor headed pitwards, having his first drive in the #13 Access Motorsports G Force-Honda after being dumped by the Panther Racing squad.
As the race went green again Meira resumed his lead and the now more awake Rice took Wheldon for second, Kanaan, Hornish and Tomas Schecker's #4 Panther Racing Dallara-Chevrolet following. A spectator's drink can sparked a second debris yellow on lap 35, just right for the drivers worried about tyre wear on the IRL's only concrete oval. Meira won the race out, but Hornish beat Rice for second, Wheldon and Darren Manning's #10 Target Chip Ganassi G Force-Toyota lining up behind.
The green flew on lap 44 and Hornish missed the jump, losing out to both Rice and Kanaan while further back Scheckter's car ran wide and slowed, dropping back to 20th. Up front it was again the Rahal-Letterman show, Rice slowly closing the deficit to his team-mate Meira, this pair the class of the field with Kanaan 1.2 seconds back by the 50-lap quarter-distance mark. Meanwhile Hornish was struggling, and on lap 58 got out of the groove to be instantly taken by Wheldon, Manning and Townsend Bell in the #2 Panther Dallara-Chevrolet. But within two laps the yellow was out again as Ed Carpenter got off line and wiped his #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara-Chevrolet along the wall.
Everyone pitted under the caution, and once again Rahal-Letterman sent its cars out ahead, Adrian Fernandez enjoying a superb stop to get his own G Force-Honda out ahead of Kanaan, Wheldon, Hornish and Manning. Two cars remained in pitlane; Dario Franchitti's foul season continued at his home track with a broken gearbox on his Andretti-Green Dallara, while Jacques Lazier suffered a broken driveshaft on the Patrick Racing Dallara-Chevrolet.
The green flew on lap 74 for a frantic restart with three-wide racing down the backstretch, and as everyone sorted themselves out Meira held off Rice with Wheldon third, Fernandez fourth and Hornish quickly working his way up to fifth as Kanaan slipped back. Now the race began to settle down, Meira leading past half-distance with a two second advantage over Rice, Wheldon more than four seconds further back.
The yellow was flying again on lap 108 as Tomas Scheckter's frantic race ended with a hard hit against the wall. As he walked away everyone else headed down pit road, and Meira's great day came to a stuttering halt as he was signalled to pull away before the fuel hose had been detached. In the confusion he killed the engine, and then had to come back down pit road. As they went green on lap 120 Rice was in the lead, Meira back in 15th.
Rice led Wheldon and Hornish, but the action was further back, Meira slicing his way forward to pass five cars at once, almost banging wheels with Mark Taylor in the process. Within five laps Meira was seventh, while up ahead Wheldon dropped back, taken by Hornish and Kanaan in successive laps.