Tony Kanaan knew he only had to finish fourth in the Toyota Indy 400 to win the 2004 Indy Racing League title with a round to spare. But he so nearly won the race on California's Fontana Speedway, failing by half a car's length to deprive Adrian Ferndandez of his third victory of the year.
Kanaan had started the weekend in less than satisfactory fashion, engine problems seeing him fail to set a time in qualifying and putting his #11 Andretti-Green Racing Dallara-Honda at the back of the grid. Kanaan's only effective rival, team-mate Dan Wheldon in the #26 car, would start 14th - third contender Buddy Rice's title hopes were eliminated the moment Kanaan took the green flag at the start.
Up front, for the third time in a row, was Penske's Helio Castroneves, hoping to score his first win of the season, but it was the #5 Fernandez Racing G Force-Honda of Adrian Fernandez which powered through from fifth grid spot to lead the opening laps of 200, Castroneves in the #3 Dallara-Toyota chasing. The field was already down by one, Darren Manning not making the start after a heavy impact with the wall during qualifying.
Fernandez held on until the first yellow on lap nine, caused by Vitor Meira brushing his #17 Rahal-Letterman G Force-Honda along the wall but with no damage. By this time the amazing Kanaan had made his way up to fourth, though rival Wheldon was being equally forceful, up to third. The entire field apart from Mark Taylor pitted under caution, leaving the #13 Access Motorsports G-Force Honda in the lead for the first time in the rookie's IRL career. But on the green flag he was quickly displaced by Castroneves and Wheldon, Fernandez having dropped back to fifth in the pits.
Penske and Andretti-Green battled for a couple of laps before the second Penske car of Sam Hornish Jr, last year's Toyota Indy 400 winner, helped Castroneves into a lead he would retain for much of the next 160 laps, only briefly losing it under green flag pit stops. Behind the seemingly dominant Penske there was rather more action, Hornish, Buddy Rice in the #15 Rahal-Letterman G Force-Honda, Wheldon and Kanaan all battling each other, until they noticed Castroneves was getting away and slipped into single file to try and reel him in.
At quarter-distance Castroneves still held the advantage over Rice, Kanaan and Wheldon now split by team-mate Dario Franchitti in the #27 car. Kanaan then found a way around Rice, and Wheldon could see his slim title hopes slipping away in what was now an unusually spread out race.
Coming back now was Fernandez, and as the race reached half-distance the Mexican held fourth, chasing after the battling duo of Rice and Kanaan. They had been running single file to try and rein in the progress of Castroneves, but the Penske steadily increased its lead, up to three seconds. Then, however, Kanaan and Rice's co-operation began to pay dividends, and the gap shrunk. By lap 145, following another round of green flag pit stops, Castroneves' advantage had been cut to under a second.
By lap 160 Kanaan was on the leader and looking for a way past, the two running side-by-side, but the Andretti-Green car's progress was hampered by the pair running into lapped traffic, But just as another round of pit stops got underway the race's second yellow flew, for debris. On the restart Kanaan went high in a bid to power past Castroneves, only for the yellow to fly again as AJ Foyt IV wiped the tyres of his #14 AJ Foyt Enterprises Dallara-Toyota along the turn 2 wall.
On the restart Kanaan took the lead, while Castroneves battled with Rice for second, Fernandez lurking ominously behind. Wheldon's hopes were finally extinguished with a drive-through penalty for blocking Hornish, and soon after the yellow was flying again as Alex Barron's #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara-Chevrolet hit the turn 2 wall.