When Roger Penske signalled his intent to join the IRL in 2002 some observers mentioned that they might have cleaned up at Indy in '01 but wait till they get to Richmond where the IRL will show its true colours.

True enough the three-quarter mile Richmond International Raceway forced Team Penske to call upon all their experiences and resources as Helio Castroneves watched his points lead all but disappear and Gil de Ferran battled an ill-handling race car that cost him his second win in a row.

Despite monopolising the front row of the starting grid for the SunTrust Indy Challenge with de Ferran on pole, Team Penske's evening turned sour within the first ten laps of the 250-lap event when Castroneves spun coming off turn two and slapped the inside pit wall on the back straight.

Even though the left hand side of his Dallara-Chevrolet was extensively damaged, his crew went to work feverishly in the garage and were able to get the Brazilian driver back on the track and up to speed shortly after the half way mark.

As it turned out their work allowed Castroneves to keep his points lead.

With a succession of early race caution periods, de Ferran was able to hold off his closest challenger, Laurent Redon for the first 80 laps until light contact with Mark Dismore's lapped car allowed Redon to take the lead in turn four.

De Ferran did not lead again until lap 162 as Redon and Greg Ray led the race whilst experimenting with different fuel strategies. When Sarah Fisher crashed on lap 160 Redon made his final stop and handed the double CART Champion the lead back. However by now de Ferran was fighting a very loose car and was unable to take advantage of the situation.

As the race entered its final 53 lap green flag dash to the chequers de Ferran had no less than six other cars lined up behind him headed by Red Bull Racing's Tomas Scheckter. However Scheckter lost ground behind the lapped car of Alex Barron and he was taken by Mo Nunn Racing's Felipe Giaffone.

Giaffone was driving with no front brakes and although he was able to tuck himself half way underneath the Marlboro car on several occasions, de Ferran was able to hold him off.

Nobody, on the other hand, was able to hold off a charging and completely healthy Sam Hornish Jr who passed Giaffone on lap 245 and came sailing past de Ferran entering turn one on lap 248.

Containing his disappointment well, de Ferran consoled himself that he was now a mere three points behind Castroneves in the points chase as the IRL season moves into its second half.

"One thing I learned tonight is that night racing is really difficult for me," said an exhausted de Ferran. "I'm really having a tough time acclimating myself. But that by no means was my major problem this evening.

"At the start of the race the car was handling really well, but as the race went on it just kept on getting looser and looser," he continued after leading a race-high 168 laps. "We worked on it during each pit stop and tried to improve the handling. With about 90 laps to go, my Marlboro Team Penske crew did a fantastic job in the pits and I was able to get out first and then take the lead when the #34 car (Redon) went in to pit.

"There were a couple of yellows after that and I was doing OK, but when it went green for the final time (on lap 196) my car was so loose that I was struggling just to keep it on the track. I had a few really big moments out there -- pretty much in every area of the circuit. Sam (Hornish) was strong off of four and he had a good run going with two laps to go.

"At that point, there was nothing I could do short of throwing him into the grass, but I consider myself a fair guy and a professional athlete and that is certainly nothing I would do. It was sad to lose the race in the last two laps but Sam did a great job and we'll take second. We were able to tighten up the points race and now we're focused on Kansas."

Castroneves was able to capitalise somewhat on a high attrition rate and moved up from 22nd to 17th in the closing stages. He finally completed 103 laps and was the last of 13 cars running at the finish.

"It was a tough night for the #3 Marlboro Team Penske crew," said Castroneves. "I was taking it easy at the beginning of the race trying to keep up with Gil (de Ferran). I saw traffic ahead and thought I might have a chance to pass him but I wasn't pushing too hard.

"The car had a little understeer and wiggle coming out of turn two but nothing too bad. I thought all was under control, but I guess not, because all of the sudden I was coming out of turn two backwards and ended up making contact with the inside wall (lap 8). It was a little weird actually because I really don't know what happened.

"The team did a fantastic job putting the car together and getting me back out in the race. They had to take the entire rear end from the spare car; they had to change the right front suspension; the front wing; and the underwing. It is a real testament to the team that they could make all of the changes and we were able to run competitively and safely at the end of the race.

"It's quite a relief that we were able to score valuable points and maintain the lead in the Championship. Now we need to come back strong in Kansas."

 

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