The 2002 Indy Racing League Championship season has truly done its part to try and revitalise mainstream American interest in open-wheel racing outside of the Indy 500 and Sunday's Chevy 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway was a fitting end to one of the most closely fought title battles in series history.

In a storybook season finale at the high-banked 1.5-mile tri oval near Fort Worth in Texas, defending Champion Sam Hornish Jr retained his title by the narrowest of margins by edging title rival Helio Castroneves by less than a nose to win the race, the Championship and a cool $1,000,000 bonus.

Hornish beat Castroneves to the line by .0096 of a second - the second-closest finish in IRL history following last Sunday's Chicagoland spectacular in which Hornish Jr prevailed over veteran Al Unser Jr by less than one thousandth of a second. Driving his familiar yellow #4 Pennzoil Panther Racing Dallara-Chevrolet, the 22 year-old became the first driver in history to win two IRL titles as he closed the season with a 20 point advantage over the Brazilian Marlboro Team Penske driver.

"It has been an incredible season," Hornish said. "It would have been a little bit better if the driver hadn't have screwed up at a couple of races. The Pennzoil Panther crew, they do an awesome job for me.

"This year I needed to win. It's a great feeling."

Hornish averaged 163.981 mph in another wild Texas race that featured 21 lead changes between seven drivers. He earned $125,400 for the victory and a $1-million bonus for winning the IRL title.

"Sam is just the greatest driver I have ever seen," said Pennzoil Panther co-owner John Barnes, a veteran of more than 30 years in Indy-style racing. "We're just so blessed, lucky to have him, to have him a part of our team, and you know he understands these blessings, also."

MBNA Pole winner Vitor Meira finished third in the No. 2 Menards/Johns Manville/Pittsburgh Paints Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone, with Scott Sharp fourth in the No. 8 Delphi Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone. Alex Barron rounded out the top five in the No. 44 Rayovac Blair Racing Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone.

Just .3628 of a second separated the top five in another fantastic IRL finish. The two closest finishes in the seven-year history of the IRL have occurred in the last two races, with five of the 15 races this season decided by less than one-tenth of a second and eight races with finishing margins of less than one second.

Hornish and Castroneves hooked up in a stirring side-by-side duel with 24 laps remaining, a far cry from the positively well mannered final 30 laps in Chicago. With 10 laps to go, Castroneves was ahead by inches over Hornish and already had clinched the two bonus points for leading the most laps.

The title contenders remained side by side for the last eight laps, weaving around lap traffic, refusing to yield position. On countless occasions the two interlocked wheels at more than 200mph with Hornish continually riding the high groove as Castroneves stuck to the bottom of the turns.

Hornish could have clinched the title even by finishing second to Castroneves, as both drivers would have finished with 521 points, but Hornish would have earned the tiebreaker for more victories this season. But that just wouldn't be Hornish's style.

As ever, the Defiance, Ohio based driver refused to take the safe route to the $1-million bonus and IRL history and he took the fight to Castroneves with relentless tenacity. With Meira, Sharp and Barron stalking the two leaders relentlessly, each one taking turns at poking a nose between the Championship duellists, one slip by Hornish would have cost him everything. It never happened.

So Hornish continued to race alongside Castroneves - Hornish high, Castroneves low - through the stretch run, wheels inches apart. At the end of Lap 199, Hornish led by .136 of a second.

The duo charged in lockstep around the 1.5-mile oval - Meira, Sharp and Barron threatening from behind - for the entire final lap, with Hornish holding off two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves by inches at the finish.

"I tell you, that was incredible," Castroneves said. "It couldn't be more exciting. What a great finish. We started racing with each other all the way through until the last lap. Like I said, it was going to be the last lap on this last racetrack. What a fantastic finish.

"What a fantastic series. I couldn't be happier. Obviously, I want to win the championship, but unfortunately, that's not the way it would go. But it's great to challenge guys like that (Hornish). He did a hell of a job. His team did a hell of a job, but I have to thank my team. What an awesome team. It's a shame: Guys, I tried really hard, I think you guys saw. But, hey, there's always next year."

It appeared for a while midway through the race that Castroneves, who entered the race 12 points behind Hornish, might not need to wait until next year.

Hornish made his second pit stop under green-flag conditions on Lap 86. Just three laps later, veteran Jeff Ward and rookie Hideki Noda crashed, bringing out a caution flag. Neither Ward nor Noda was hurt although if the stocky Scottish born driver had been allowed access to Noda's Indy Regency garage the story may have been different.

Castroneves took advantage of the caution period to make his second stop in the No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone and re-entered the track in the lead. Hornish was eighth and mired in heavy traffic.

But Hornish confidently worked his way towards the front and climbed to third by Lap 130. Hornish passed Castroneves for the lead on Lap 146, and they began a spine-tingling duel for the next five laps, trading the lead three times between each other in a preview of the stretch-run showdown.

Hornish started the final cycle of pit stops among the lead group on Lap 153 with a 10.8-second stop, with Castroneves in the pits for 9.8 seconds on his final stop on Lap 158.

Castroneves took the lead on Lap 165 when leader Meira made his first pit stop, with Hornish in fourth.

Hornish climbed to second by Lap 175, and he and Castroneves began their side-by-side showcase of driving skill and courage two laps later. The margin between the two drivers at the start-finish line exceeded one-tenth of a second only twice in the final 24 laps.

"It was a great season, and the competition was unbelievable," said Roger Penske, Marlboro Team Penske owner in gracious defeat. "Today's finish was another testament to the close racing in the IRL, and we're proud to be a part of this series.
"I want to congratulate Sam and the Panther team - they're a real class act."

Believe it or not a total of 28 cars were present on Sunday and between them they provided enough full-blooded seat-of-the-pants action to fill a whole book. Even more refreshing was the overall code of driver conduct and the lack of wall banging action. Indeed Ward's coming together with the rather pedestrian Noda was the only crash in a race that saw just four caution periods. Rookie George Mack spun on his own engine oil on lap 23 but was able to keep his 310 Racing G Force off the wall but everyone else kept it pointing in the right direction throughout.

Behind the leading quintet to the tune of 1.9-seconds was the Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara-Infiniti of Buddy Rice, bringing the curtain down on Infiniti's involvement in the primary IRL category with a solid run.

2000 IRL Champ Buddy Lazier was the only other car on the lead lap as the finish as mechanical gremlins took their toll on the field and in the final race under current IRL chassis and engine regulations, an unseasonably high ten cars fell by the wayside with mechanical problems, most of which were engine failures.

Eddie Cheever, in possibly his last race as a full time driver, finished eighth one lap down with Tony Renna and newly crowed Rookie of the Year Laurent Redon completing the top ten.

Sarah Fisher lost two laps after deciding on a different fuel strategy to most of the leaders and came home eleventh for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing ahead of Airton Dare's AJ Foyt run Dallara, Robby McGehee in a third Red Bull Cheever machine and Greg Ray in the lone Sam Schmidt Motorsports entry.

Briton Dan Wheldon was the last car running without serious delay in 15th place after an eventful drive from the back of the grid. Moving up steadily in the #15 Panther Racing machine, Wheldon moved into 12th spot before the halfway point but could not reach the leading pack and fell a lap off the pace. Then somewhat alarmingly for a driver in just his second ever IRL race Wheldon lost contact with his spotter and was black-flagged. Problem apparently fixed, he lost four more laps and returned to action, running solidly to the finish.

Of those who failed to make it to the end, Al Unser Jr was the biggest casualty after mixing it for the lead like only Al Unser Jr can for much of the race. The Kelley Racing driver was well placed to become the perfect title spoiler for his old boss Roger Penske when his engine let go on lap 171.

Billy Boat also put in a sterling effort as usual in his Mike Curb sponsored entry only to have his Infiniti go pop just passed the half way mark while veteran Raul Boesel also had a typically stout run going for Bradley Motorsports before his engine died. In what could well be Bradley's last race as a full-time IRL operation, Ricky Treadway lost many laps in the second car but soldiered on to the end and was classified 19th.

Felipe Giaffone lost out on a chance of third place in the overall standings when he lost an engine while Max Papis in the second Marlboro Team Penske machine also failed to finish after an unspectacular outing.

As for the driver with perhaps the most interest surrounding him from die-hard IRL fans, Cory Kruseman had a fleeting moment of glory in the PDM Racing Dallara when he briefly ran in the fifth spot following the second caution of the day on lap 35. Sadly the sprint car and dirt midget ace saw his day come to an end on lap 74 with a transmission failure.

The 16-race 2003 IRL season starts March 2 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. When it arrives it may look hugely different from the one that lined up in front of an impressive 70,000 fans on Sunday but even if it does it will be no less exciting.

 

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