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.
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.