Alex Barron stole his first career Indy Racing League victory and the first of any sort for Larry Blair's eponymous operation in a crash-filled Firestone Indy 200 at the Nashville Superspeedway.

Barron took advantage of an unusually high eight caution periods, mostly due to accidents on the incredibly slippery concrete Nashville surface, to eke out his fuel mileage in a risky gamble that paid off.

In a frantic two-lap dash to the chequered flag, the Rayovac sponsored Dallara-Chevrolet driver was able to keep a hungry Gil de Ferran at bay despite the fact that the Marlboro Team Penske driver had more fuel and better tyres. However Barron was glad that the race went 200 laps and not 205 as the two time CART FedEx Champion was just four tenths of a second behind when the flag fell.

After qualifying a respectable fifth on Friday, Barron fell out of pit sequence as early as lap 58 when he and Eddie Cheever stayed out under the second caution period of the day for Greg Ray's accident. Although Barron was swallowed up on the re-start, another caution on lap 83 enabled the Indy 500 co-Rookie of the Year to fall back in line. However when the fifth caution flew on lap 128, Blair acing cleverly waited until the lap before the re-start (137) before bringing their man onto pit road for what would hopefully be his final stop.

Although this strategy left Barron at the tail of the lead lap in eleventh place, he was able to avoid going a lap down and scored a big break when Boat and Tomas Scheckter both crashed in identical, simultaneous but separate accidents in turn two on lap 171.

Scott Sharp and Richie Hearn also rolled the dice on fuel and stayed out leaving Barron in third place when the race went green on lap 180. With de Ferran tucked in directly behind in fourth, lady luck once again spared Barron for just two laps after going green, the yellow flags were out when defending Nashville Champion Buddy Lazier crashed.

Fuel mileage was now not so much of a problem but Barron still had to get around Hearn and Sharp and amazingly, when the green flag flew on lap 190, he did just that with an aggressive move on Hearn in turn one and then an equally forceful move on Sharp in turn three.

Blair Racing's tempered joy increased on lap 194 when yet another caution was called for the stalled car of Jeff Ward but when de Ferran swiftly dealt with Sharp to take second on the lap 198 re-start, a tense finish was ensured. Not that Larry Blair and Co. should have worried as Barron reeled off the final 2.66-miles without hitch to score a surprise and very welcome victory.

De Ferran had to content himself with his new position at the top of the IRL points tree despite not leading a lap all evening and actually falling off the lead lap briefly after pitting under green on lap 105. Gil was able to assume the No.1 position as previous leader Helio Castroneves could only muster a ninth place finish.

Castroneves had been a major factor right from the off after qualifying on the outside of the front row but, like his teammate, could not lead a single lap. His day began to unravel while holding down second place on lap 155 when his Marlboro Team Penske crew began detecting that he may have a tyre going down. On lap 160 he was forced to pit under green for his final stop and, adding to his misery, a rare error from his pit crew put him two laps down instead of the expected one. Although he was able to gain ground through attrition, he could not get back on terms with the leaders.

The other major Championship player, Sam Hornish Jr, appeared to have the best car in the field for much of the race but a combination of bad timing and sheer misfortune put paid to his hopes of victory. However, like de Ferran, Hornish consoled himself with the knowledge that not only had he made major gains on Castroneves but that he inherited a place on the podium when Sharp was docked one lap for over vociferous blocking in the final laps.

From third place on the grid, Hornish took 12 laps to work his way around polesitter and early race leader Billy Boat and went on to lead a race-high 95 laps. At one point his lead was more than seven seconds but then a bizarre accident on lap 171 with George Mack effectively ended his challenge.

Comfortably leading Boat and Scheckter when they crashed, Hornish saw the yellow lights early and slowed through the middle of turn four and was rammed by the partially unsighted Mack. Mack's car rode up over the left rear wheel of the Panther Racing machine, puncturing the tyre and damaging some bodywork. Not only was Hornish able to save the car but also he made it to the pits and stayed in the top five. However with his aerodynamics disturbed he was effectively a spent force.

Some in the packed Nashville grandstands may have viewed this as some kind of poetic justice as earlier in the evening, a particularly robust move for the lead on Kansas winner Airton Dare resulted in the Brazilian getting out of the groove and into the wall.

Dare's crash completed a dreadful day for the three-car AJ Foyt team for in addition to Dare's contact, Greg Ray and Eliseo Salazar also crashed out in almost identical single car crashes in turn two. However for Dare, who was a legitimate challenger for victory despite qualifying 19th, it was the end of another fine drive.

Sharp's demotion to eighth place elevated Hearn to fourth, Raul Boesel to an impressive fifth for Bradley Motorsports, Eddie Cheever to sixth and a disappointing Felipe Giaffone to seventh.

Behind Castroneves in tenth spot and the only other car running at the end was IRL debutant Tony Renna. He may have been five laps down but that doesn't tell the whole story for, Hornish aside, Renna led more laps than any other driver (35) and at one point held a seven second lead over the rest of the field.

Renna's lead came about when he and Salazar elected not to pit under the first caution on lap 23 and while the rest of the pack became blocked up behind the returning Chilean, Renna cleared off. Things looked like they were falling into place for the Kelley Racing driver when Ray crashed on lap 58 allowing him to pit under caution and stay with the leaders.

However on exiting pitlane after a clean stop, Renna's inexperience got the better of him and he spun leaving pit road on cold tyres and lost three laps.

Other major talking points included the complete lack of grip afforded to the drivers just inches out of the sole racing groove. All three Foyt drivers said that as soon as they got off-line it was like 'hitting a sheet of ice' while Boat, Scheckter and Lazier all crashed after exactly the same problem.

Early retirements from Dreyer & Reinbold teammates Sarah Fisher and Robbie Buhl and further mechanical woes for Mark Dismore and Laurent Redon thinned the field out considerably with 12 of the 22 starters failing to make the finish. With the inaugural Michigan 400 just one week away there are going to be some serious late nights for many of the crews in the upcoming days.

 

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