With 15 of 16 races completed in the 2003 IRL IndyCar Series season, just 30 points separate the five drivers eligible for the series championship.

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon are tied for the lead with 467 points. Andretti Green Racing driver Tony Kanaan is third with 460, followed by two-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. at 448 and two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran at 437.

The championship chase is the closest in IRL history heading into the final race, the Chevy 500 Oct. 12 at Texas Motor Speedway. But how does it compare to other great auto racing championship chases?

Because points systems have varied over the years in Indy-style racing, and the points systems in NASCAR and Formula One are different, it's difficult to statistically pinpoint which championship chase was the closest in auto racing history.

But it's a sure bet that the 2003 IndyCar Series championship is one of the best in the more than 100 years of auto racing.

"I think it's something very unusual to have this many players going down to the last race," said Mario Andretti, the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 at the Formula One World Championship. "These are the things that any series would dream about. To know you have a shot at it, for any driver, it keeps everything alive. The other part of it, from a fan standpoint, is all that energy that goes into the last event of the season is awesome."

Looking at recent auto racing history, the most drivers eligible for the Formula One championship entering the final race is three, and it's happened eight times, most recently in 1986. The NASCAR Winston Cup Series had six drivers eligible for the championship entering the final race in 1992, and the IndyCar Series had six in 1999.

But what makes the 2003 IndyCar Series championship interesting and unusual is that the top three drivers in the point standings, Castroneves, Dixon and Kanaan, control their fate. Each will win the championship with a victory in the Chevy 500, regardless of where the other drivers finish. It's that simple.

That was not the case in the IndyCar Series in 1999, in Winston Cup in 1992 or in F1 in 1986.

"I've never seen anything this close, and I'll tell you, when I won my championship, thank God I won mine earlier in the season that this one," said Danny Sullivan, 1988 CART champion and 1985 Indianapolis 500 winner. "What a fantastic championship. It's going to be won on the racetrack, at the last race, with five guys."

Perhaps more amazing than having three drivers controlling their destiny is that Castroneves and Dixon are tied for first with 467 points after 15 races and 2,856 laps of racing.

It is believed that in the long and illustrious history of Indy-style racing, dating back to the first championship in 1909, there has rarely, if ever, been a tie for the lead between two drivers entering the final race of the season.

Only once in F1, in 1974, was there a tie entering the final race. Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni were tied with 52 points entering the final Grand Prix of the year at Watkins Glen. Jody Scheckter, father of current IndyCar Series standout Tomas Scheckter, also was eligible for the title with 45 points. Fittipaldi finished fourth at the Glen, was the only driver to score points and won the title, 55-52, over Regazzoni.

Since the modern era of NASCAR, there never has been a tie entering the final race of the season in Winston Cup, Busch or Craftsman Truck competition. The closest margin with one race to go in Winston Cup was two points, which separated leader Darrell Waltrip from Richard Petty in 1979. Petty won the championship by 11 points.

So is the 2003 IndyCar Series championship the closest ever?

It's hard to say. But it's certainly rare, in any form of motorsports, to have a championship chase as tight as the 2003 IndyCar Series championship.

Five drivers, separated by just 30 points, with one race remaining, and $1 million and a page in history on the line.

"It's a direct indication of how the whole season has been in the IRL," said three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time USAC champion Bobby Unser. "In other words: exceptionally competitive. That's the most competitive I've seen racing between the competitors for as long as I can remember."

It will be settled at Texas Motor Speedway, site of some of the greatest IndyCar Series races and a place where eight races have featured a margin of victory of less than a second, including five of the top 10 closest finishes in IndyCar Series history.

Can a winner be picked?

"No, if you did that in the IRL, you'd be a dumb person," Unser said. "This year you've got five guys, and they're finishing it at Texas. Gosh, what a close race that always is.

"I look forward to Texas being an extremely good race."



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