By Andrew Charman

Just about halfway through the Indy Racing League season, and while the action has been as competitive as ever, one team has clearly produced the most complete package - until now.

The four-car squad of Andretti-Green Racing, and particularly the two machines of Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon have been constantly competitive, and as the circus unloaded in Nashville for this weekend's Firestone Indy 200 Kanaan sat proudly atop the title race 28 points ahead of his British team-mate. Those pundits, however, who have long concluded that ChampCar refugees Michael Andretti and Kim Green will take their first IRL title in 2004 are being forced to revise their views, as another squad is suddenly getting its act together and looking ominously competitive.

Bobby Rahal is also a team owner poached from the road course-dominated ChampCar, but much more recently. For some time he's had a car in both camps, but just a few months ago turned his back on ChampCar to focus full-time on IRL, along the way gaining a joint team owner in talk show host David Letterman. The move was good news for Buddy Rice, Rahal's driver in IRL. He had started the season on a race-to-race basis, filling in for Rahal's lead driver Kenny Brack, recuperating after a horrifying accident in the season finale last year. A full-time Rahal IRL squad meant a second car, and the chance for Rice to tie down a season-long deal. And he's done it in impressive fashion, winning the blue riband Indy 500, and last time out at Kansas to rise to an ominous-for-Andretti-Green third in the standings. Not surprisingly, Rahal has already confirmed that Rice will be his driver throughout 2004.

The reason opposing teams should be worried, however, is the mushrooming form of Rahal-Letterman as a whole. When Rice won at Kansas a fortnight ago, it was the closest finish of the season and the man in second was his team-mate, the hitherto little known Vitor Meira. The Brazilian, sidelined for much of last year by a wrist injury, now has the role of keeping the seat warm for Brack and he could be forcing a difficult decision on Rahal. Kansas was his second successive second place finish, and when the field is unleashed in this weekend's race Rice will sit on his fourth pole of the season but Meira will be right alongside. For Rice this is good news, as he revealed after setting pole. "The biggest thing with what's happened with Rahal-Letterman is that we have a two-car effort now," he said, adding that everybody was now focused on working just at the IRL. "The way Vitor and I have been exchanging information, and the way the engineers are working, everything is moving in the right direction."

In truth, Rahal's decision on driver line-ups may be made for him, as rumours grow of Brack deciding not to return to the cockpit, small consolation for rivals who are looking at an increasingly strong Rahal-Letterman squad. Meira, however, is not getting over-excited, not just yet. "Since Japan (in April), we've been really hooked up," he said after qualifying. "It's the work that Rahal Letterman Racing does, that Honda does, and the support that Centrix, Pioneer and Argent gave us. In competition, nothing comes easy. We worked for it, and now it's paying off. It's not going to pay off forever. Everything's a cycle, now it's our turn."

With the front row of the grid sown up, Andretti-Green has been forced so far to play a supporting role this weekend. Three of the four Dallaras sit in positions third to fifth on the grid, Bryan Herta heading Wheldon and Kanaan. Only Target Chip Ganassi's Darren Manning prevented an Andretti-Green block vote, snatching sixth spot to push Dario Feanchitti back to seventh. But of all the Andretti-Green squad Franchitti may feel he has most to prove this weekend. While he's a Scot, he calls Nashville home, and so far he's endured a season of foul luck with too much involvement in other people's crashes. Franchitti knows he can be as competitive as his team-mates, and knows too that after spending most of his 2003 debut year on the sidelines with a spine injury he's yet to crack the IRL the way he did ChampCars. He wants a win, and badly, but he also has quite a challenge this weekend. "I'm very surprised to be starting seventh," Franchitti said after qualifying. "The balance of the car felt very good, but we just didn't have everything we needed today. Being my first time here, I've had to learn a lot in just one day. It's going to be nice to get to race in front of so many friends and family members."

For Brit number four in the field completing 200 laps on Saturday night will be an achievement, and hopefully quell some of the increasing doubts voiced over his place in IRL. Mark Taylor sat out the last round at Kansas, summarily dumped from the Panther Racing Squad after crashing out of five of the first six races and attracting the ire of Franchitti among others. But Taylor has found a lifeline, or at least his budget has, with the less than wealthy Access Motorsports, team boss Greg Ray handing over the driving seat while he searches for more secure long-term funding. Taylor has work to do, and first step will be to see the chequered flag come Saturday night. He'll start from position 18, something that doesn't surprise him as he revealed after qualifying; "We're just scrambling together a bit at the moment, just making sure I feel comfortable in the car. We haven't really done any qualifying stuff, which is why we're slow. We're working on race stuff, and it should be good."

Others in the field can't be counted out. Nashville could be regarded as a Penske track, the now-retired Gil De Ferran winning here last year. Having dominated the opening round of the series way back in February this year's Penske squad of Sam Hornish Jnr and Helio Castroneves have been frustrated since - but you never count the Marlboro-liveried cars out. Nor can you ignore the Ganassi squad of Darren Manning and defending champion Scott Dixon.

Saturday night sees the last race of the season under lights and it's a toughie. Nashville's 1.33-mile track is quick - qualifying laps averaged 200mph - and it's the only concrete oval in the schedule. Andretti-Green Racing engineer Eric Cowdin dubs it unique. "It's not quite a superspeedway, but it's not a short oval; it's somewhere in between," he said after qualifying. "Plus, it has a concrete surface, which makes it very challenging. Even with the new aero package, the cars are still doing close to 200 miles per hour, so it will be exciting."

On current evidence the odds have swung towards another Rahal success. But one of the most compelling aspects of this series is that no race starts with a clear favourite. The action starts at around 7pm Eastern Time, midnight in the UK. Stay tuned to Crash.net for the full story.

 

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