By Andrew Charman

Three times in a row Helio Castroneves had taken an Indy Racing League pole position this season only to be disappointed in the race. But at the fourth time of asking it all came good for the Penske driver, after a late caution timing his restart perfectly to take the final race of the year at Texas. Brit Dan Wheldon lost second on the finish line to his team-mate and new IRL champion Tony Kanaan, but third was enough to seal a superb second in the championship for the Brit.

Unlike last year's Texas finale, which began with five drivers in contention for the title, this was expected to be a race that everyone enjoyed, the serious business of the 2004 championship title settled two weeks earlier in California in favour of Tony Kanaan. But Andretti-Green team-mate Dan Wheldon had unfinished business, needing to stay ahead of Rahal-Letterman's Buddy Rice to seal second in the series.

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Nicely shaking things up, Andretti-Green's usual domination faltered for the finale, Wheldon qualifying eighth and Kanaan 10th while Rice secured fifth spot - until both the Panther cars of Tomas Scheckter and Townsend Bell were sent to the back for falling foul of the series technical regulations, and were joined by Andretti-Green's Dario Franchitti after the Scot crashed his car in practice, fracturing his foot in the process. In pole for the fourth consecutive time would be Penske's Helio Castroneves, with one last chance to take a win in what has been a poor 2004 for the Malboro Penske squad.

Castroneves duly led the first of 200 laps, Vitor Meira's Rahal-Letterman G-Force Honda going high on Sam Hornish Jr for second. But on lap four the first yellow was flying, Ed Carptenter ending his season where he had spent much of it, with his Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara-Chevrolet in the wall. At the green on lap 13 Hornish stayed with Castroneves, Rahal-Letteram team-mates Rice and Meira leading Wheldon and the rest while coming fast from the back was Scheckter, 12th by lap 18.

With 30 laps down Meira had closed up on the leading Penske pair, while Scheckter was now running side-by-side with Wheldon for fourth. The Andretti-Green man's bigger task was eased when on lap 41 when Rice headed for the pits, suffering terminal electrical gremlins on his G Force-Honda. Wheldon and Scheckter now slotted into single file, and quickly closed the gap to the lead trio, Kanaan joining in to create a six-car pack by the time the race reached quarter-distance.

Scheckter kicked off the first set of pit stops on lap 56, his Chevrolet engine again not getting the fuel mileage of its Japanese rivals. Castroneves was in a lap later, and the rest soon followed. By the time the stops had cycled through, Wheldon had the lead but not for long, both Penskes closing onto his tail and Castroneves going high, Hornish slotting in behind to push the Marlboro pair past their Andretti-Green rival. Kanaan held fourth ahead of Adrian Fernandez's self-run G Force-Honda and Meira, who had Scheckter harrying them both. This seemed to spur Fernandez, winner of the last two races, and he moved high around Kanaan to challenge Wheldon. The pair ran side by side for several laps, almost touching several times before Wheldon saw the looming Scheckter and slotted behind Fernandez to try and pull them both back to the lead duo.

Fernandez was too quick, however, quickly opening a gap and closing in on the Penske pair. With 90 laps down he rounded Hornish, but Castroneves fought back and their side-by-side battle allowed everyone else to close back in. It took Fernandez five laps to take the lead, and in the process Hornish passed his team-mate for second.

Scheckter's typically gutsy drive came to an end on lap 106 with yet another slice of cruel luck, his Chevrolet engine detonating and sparking the second caution. Everybody headed for pit road, and Hornish beat Fernandez out, Wheldon and Meira passing Castroneves. The green flew on lap 116 and Fernandez tried to round Hornish as Wheldon tried to go past both on the high side. Hornish held on, Wheldon got briefly squiggly and Meira and Kanaan both went past.

Fernandez now found himself outfoxed by Kanaan, the champion-elect moving into second on lap 123 and Wheldon looking for a way to follow. It took the Brit five laps, and he then quickly closed on his team-mate. Fernandez now slipped back, and by lap 137 Castroneves was by him too and Meira and Scott Sharp's Kelley Racing Dallara-Toyota looking for a way through as the top six all closed up again.

With 50 to go Hornish still led, Kanaan still stalking with Wheldon and Castroneves close behind waiting for developments. Now Meira came to play too, and suddenly it was Meira, Kanaan and Castroneves three-wide for the lead as Hornish slowed, sparking a caution as he came to a halt shy of pit road with electrical problems on his Toyota engine. The timing was perfect for everyone else, allowing them to get their final stop out of the way under yellow, and the Andretti-Green squad reacted best to send Wheldon and Kanaan out first, Dan rudely cutting across the nose of Tony as Castroneves , Fernandez, Meira and Sharp followed.

At the green Wheldon and Kanaan went side-by-side, the Brit emerging at the head of a 210mph weaving, dodging pack as we began the last 25 laps. Meira, Kanaan and Fernandez ran three-wide for third, Tony running two wheels onto the grass and almost spinning, while Castroneves set about Wheldon for the lead, going ahead as Meira tried to follow suit.

Then caution number four flew, and this time it was for a biggie, Dario Franchitti spinning and collecting Alex Barron, whose Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara-Chevrolet rode on top of Franchitti's Andretti-Green car before slamming the wall. Alex was carefully removed from the car, cheering the crowd with a thumbs-up as he was loaded into the ambulance with what later proved to be minor injuries.

All of which left a two-lap sprint to the flag, and the crowd on its feet. Castroneves got a big jump and went (later earning a fine from IRL for his efforts), Wheldon, Kanaan and Meira desperately trying to catch him. It was all too late, and Helio wrapped up his first win of the year to give Roger Penske a curious 2004 statistic of victories in the opening and closing races of the year and none inbetween, while Kanaan snatched second from Wheldon on the line, by about the thickness of the paint on his nosecone.

Once Helio had completed his traditional Spiderman celebration, climbing the debris fence to the delight of the crowd, he had plenty to say in victory lane. "These guys were awesome ," he grinned. "Toyota worked its butt off to make things happen - let's keep this momentum going. We won the first, we won the last, maybe we'll be more consistent next year. "

Despite losing out on the line, Wheldon wasn't too disappointed. Second in the championship in only his second full season, he will go into 2005 as a serious title contender in an extended Indy Racing League that will be taking on road courses for the first time- the first British champion in top-line US motorsport since Nigel Mansell in 1993? We'll find out in a 2005 season that will have to be pretty special to match the action that was IRL 2004.