IPS: IRL: Indy Racing League News and Notes 2006-09-07

Today's IndyCar Series and Indy Pro Series headlines 1. Chicagoland breeds close finishes -- and now a championship shootout 2. IndyCar Series champion to be crowned among Chicagoland fans 3. Patrick visits Wrigley Field 4. Indy Pro Series title...

Today's IndyCar Series and Indy Pro Series headlines
1. Chicagoland breeds close finishes -- and now a championship shootout
2. IndyCar Series champion to be crowned among Chicagoland fans
3. Patrick visits Wrigley Field
4. Indy Pro Series title to be decided at Chicagoland
5. McCann to debut at Chicagoland
6. Wieringa teams with Racing for Kids for Chicagoland

1. Chicagoland breeds close finishes -- and now a championship shootout: One race, four contenders, one champion.

Only 21 points separate the four IndyCar Series title contenders entering the PEAK Antifreeze Indy 300 presented by Mr. Clean at Chicagoland Speedway. A single point separates leader Helio Castroneves and second-place driver Sam Hornish Jr., but there are multiple scenarios that could determine who will receive the $1 million bonus check on a specially constructed stage in the grandstand about 4 p.m. (ET) Sept. 10.

Marlboro Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. pace the lead pack that includes Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon. Don't remind Castroneves that he's the only contender without an IndyCar Series championship.

Chicagoland Speedway has produced some of the most exciting racing on the circuit -- four of the five races have been decided by less than a tenth of a second, including the closest finish in series history with Hornish's victory by 0.0024 of a second over Al Unser Jr. in 2002 -- and now the champion will emerge from the high-banked tri-oval.

After 2,310 laps over 13 events, it comes down to 200 breathless circuits. It will be a wild ride for everyone -- drivers, teams and fans.

Here's a breakdown of the four contenders:

Helio Castroneves (points leader)

Passing muster: Castroneves, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, is seeking his first IndyCar Series championship. In 2002, trailing by 12 points entering the finale, he followed Hornish across the finish line and was denied the title. The next year, he was tied with Dixon after 15 of 16 events and again came up short.

Chicagoland lowdown: Was runner-up to Dan Wheldon last September and a former pole winner (2004) at the track. In four starts, he has a pair of top-five finishes and has led a total of 19 laps.

Quick click: On the five 1.5-mile ovals this year, he has an average start of 2.2 and finish of 2.6. Two of his four victories (Homestead, Texas) have been on 1.5-mile speedways, and he's led laps in four of the five (52.8 average). In 30 career starts on 1.5-mile ovals, Castroneves has three victories and 20 top-five finishes. He's been running at the finish in 27.

He said it: "In previous years, Marlboro Team Penske has had difficulty on the 1.5-mile ovals like Chicagoland, but this year we seem to be consistently strong, so we're definitely looking forward to getting out there and fighting for the championship. It's going to be a very exciting race with four guys, who all seem to do well on this type of track, fighting for the title. I feel as though I need to win this race to win the championship, so we're going to give it our all. I've been chasing an IndyCar championship my entire career, and have never been able to accomplish this goal, so winning it would be a dream come true. Plus, it would mean a lot to me to be able to give Roger and Marlboro Team Penske their first IndyCar Series championship."

Sam Hornish Jr. (one point behind)

Passing muster: Hornish is seeking to be the first three-time series champion. He's won in the years that Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500. Hornish counts the 90th running of the 500-Mile Race in May as one of his four victories this season, so does that mean Castroneves wins the series title? Hornish is a great guy, but not that generous. Of his 18 victories, 11 have been decided by less than one second, including three this season (Indianapolis, Kansas and Kentucky).

Chicagoland lowdown: After being the runner-up to Jaques Lazier in the inaugural race, Hornish won in 2002 and '03. He finished fourth last year. Hornish has led 155 laps in his five starts.

Quick click: Chicagoland Speedway has been the site of two of the five closest finishes in IndyCar Series competition, and Hornish was involved in both -- beating Unser in 2002 and edging Dixon by 0.0099 of a second in 2003. On the five 1.5-mile ovals this year, Hornish has an average start of 2.0 (poles at Homestead and Texas) and finish of 2.6 (victories at Kansas and Kentucky). He's led laps in four of the races (73.4 average). In 41 starts on 1.5-mile ovals, he has 10 victories and led 1,431 laps.

He said it: "Chicagoland Speedway is a track where I've always been strong, so I feel like we have a great opportunity to do well here. With only a one-point deficit in the championship, a win takes all, so that's what we're shooting for this weekend. To be honest, with some of the problems we've had at a couple of the races this year, I feel that we could've been a lot farther behind, so I'm happy with where we are heading into the final race. It should be a great show for the fans, and hopefully we'll be able to bring home Marlboro Team Penske's first IndyCar Series championship."

Dan Wheldon (19 points behind)

Passing muster: One of the goals for the reigning IndyCar Series champion when he handed the keys of the No. 26 car at Andretti Green Racing to rookie Marco Andretti was to win the championship with a new team. The feisty Brit has incurred some bad racing luck, but he's still in the hunt.

Chicagoland lowdown: Wheldon's record sixth victory of 2005 came at the track, and he has three top-five finishes in four visits. He's led a total of 138 laps and made his IndyCar Series debut at the track with Panther Racing in 2002.

Quick click: On the five 1.5-mile ovals this year, Wheldon has an average starting position of 3.0 (pole at Kansas) and finish of 2.4 (victory at Homestead). He's led laps in all the races (59.0 average). In 25 starts on 1.5-mile ovals, he has five victories and has led 1,066 laps. He's been running at the finish in 23.

He said it: "I think it's not often that you get to win -- you get the chance to win a championship in such a competitive series. We definitely have the opportunity to do that, although it will be very difficult with the way the points spread is right now. I'm going to do everything in my power to make that possible. It's my first year at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. There would be no better way to kind of celebrate that year than with winning a championship. We'll just have to see what we can do. I think everybody is working very hard at the team. We'll just try and win the race first and let the others take care of themselves."

Scott Dixon (21 points behind)

Passing muster: The 2003 IndyCar Series champion has been strong on the road/street circuits and recorded a victory on the 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway, and has handled a pressure-packed race before. The points race potentially would have been closer, but a pit stop miscue cost the pole sitter at Infineon Raceway two weeks ago.

Chicagoland lowdown: Aside from coming close in 2003, Dixon has one other top 10 in three starts. He's led one lap.

Quick click: On the five 1.5-mile ovals this year, Dixon has an average start of 3.4 and finish of 4.4 (runner-up at Texas and Kentucky). He's led laps in three of the races (6.4 average). In 24 starts on 1.5-mile ovals, Dixon has one victory and has led 273 laps.

He said it: "I want it real bad. It's been a big year for us getting back to the top and having competitive cars. For me, it's been a lot of fun and just racing with guys back at the front, going for race wins each weekend, knowing you have a shot at it. I'm pretty happy with where we're at. Ultimately, we go in every year and try to set a goal of winning a championship. That would be pretty big for us."

2. IndyCar Series champion to be crowned among Chicagoland fans: Fans fortunate enough to have a ticket to the PEAK Antifreeze Indy 300 presented by Mr. Clean on Sept. 10 will get a close-up look at the ceremonies to crown the IndyCar Series champion.

A stage is being constructed in the Chicagoland Speedway grandstand just to the Turn 4 side of the finish line where the new series champion will receive the IRL Cup and his $1 million check from Indy Racing League president and COO Brian Barnhart.

Joining the champion on the stage will be his winning car (thanks to a lift built into the platform), and the ceremony will come complete with pyrotechnics.

Pre-race festivities, including driver introductions, will be on the stage, too.

3. Patrick visits Wrigley Field: As a native of Roscoe, Ill., Danica Patrick grew up cheering for the Chicago Cubs. On Sept. 7, the IndyCar Series driver led the cheers for her favorite team.

Patrick threw out the first pitch and sang "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" during the traditional seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field.

"I have had the chance to do a lot of cool things over the last couple of years," Patrick said. "Opportunities to go to the ESPY's and movie premieres and doing commercials for ESPN and photo shoots for fashion magazines have been a great way to bring exposure to the IndyCar Series and have a lot of fun at the same time.

"I have to admit the chance to sing 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' at the Cubs game and to throw out the first pitch is something I have wanted to do for a long time."

Patrick, wearing a white No. 16 Cubs jersey, found the catcher's mitt on a hop with her pitch and ended her visit to Wrigley Field imploring the Cubs to "Let's get some runs!"

"I grew up a Cubs fan," she said. "The promotion for the Chicagoland race and the series is great, but this is an opportunity I really wanted to do just for fun. I was more nervous for the pitch than the song. Everyone kept telling me not to bounce it. I bounced it, but it was down the middle."

4. Indy Pro Series title to be decided at Chicagoland: Four drivers separated by 27 points. A racetrack that one year ago had six cars separated by 9 ½ car lengths at the checkered flag. How fitting that the closest championship battle in Indy Pro Series history will be decided at a racetrack notorious for close finishes.

Jay Howard, Jonathan Klein, Bobby Wilson and Wade Cunningham will battle for 67 laps at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 9. One will walk away with the Firestone Firehawk Cup.

Howard has the edge on his competitors, leading Klein by eight points, Wilson by 24 and Cunningham by 27. It's the first time in Indy Pro Series history that four drivers have gone into the season's final race eligible to win the championship, and the eight-point difference between first and second is the smallest ever.

Even though he's a rookie, and new to oval racing, Howard has success on the two other 1.5-mile tracks this season, winning the pole in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway in March and winning the race at Kentucky Speedway in August.

"Yeah, obviously that's good," said Howard, who drives the No. 7 Lucas Oil/Isilon car for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. "I hadn't really thought about that, to be honest. I know the car is going to be pretty good there. The guys tested one of the rookies there a few weeks back. He was fast. But I'm in the car, and with my experience I'm sure we'll go a little bit faster.

"I know Wade and Jonathan, several other guys, are going to be all up there. It's going to be close. We're going to run in a pack. Yeah, I believe we can put on a good show for the fans. Hopefully I can win the championship."

The closest competition for Howard is Klein, a 19-year-old rookie from Long Grove, Ill., which is just 50 miles from the track. Klein drives the No. 26 Klein Tools/Turn-Key Forging car for Andretti Green Racing, but is essentially a teammate of Howard's due to a partnership between Andretti Green and Sam Schmidt Motorsports. While Howard was the polesitter at Homestead, Klein started second. At Kentucky, Klein was on the pole and finished second.

"I'm sure we're going to end up with pretty much identical cars," Howard said. "We'll just see what happens. I don't know, hopefully I can win. It's definitely going to be close."

Said Klein: "I think we'll be teammates until the checkered flag. There's not going to be any funny business during the entire weekend. There won't be any of that going on between Jay and myself. I'll treat him with the same respect that I would treat everyone else. I'm going to race him damn hard, but I'm not going to put ourselves in a situation where we can get ourselves into trouble."

"My game plan is going to be pretty much run mistake-free," continued Klein, who has nine top-five finishes in 11 starts. "I think it's going to come down to, as we saw at Kentucky, Wade, Jaime (Camara), Jay, myself, even a few other guys, are all capable of running up front, equal with each other. I think it's going to come down to a game who makes the least amount of mistakes."

With his deficit at a mere eight points, a variety of scenarios allow Klein to win the championship -- even if he finishes as low as ninth. That would not satisfy him.

"Winning the race, that's my goal before I start worrying about the championship," Klein said. "I don't want to be a championship winner while not being a race winner. That wouldn't be very impressive to myself. I'd kind of be frustrated by that."

While they are mathematically still eligible to win the championship, the scenarios for doing so aren't as kind to Wilson or Cunningham. Both essentially need first- or second-place finishes in the race and for Howard and Klein to finish in the back half of the field.

Wilson, however, isn't racing just for himself. In addition to racing for the driver championship, Wilson hopes to bring home the entrant championship to Kenn Hardley Racing. The team leads those point standings by six over Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

"I'm being really optimistic and hope things fall my way," said Wilson, whose average finish is sixth in five oval races this season. "My past experiences on ovals have not proven to be very stellar, but I guess the team pretty much is going to try to pull out all the stops this weekend, put a good car on the track."

Cunningham, the reigning series champion, never had championship aspirations this season, especially after missing two races in March due to an emergency appendectomy.

"We came into the year not talking about the championship," Cunningham said. "We just wanted to win individual races and be fast. We've achieved nearly all of our goals so far. You look at four poles, and we've won two races, which is equal to anyone else this year. We've had a good year.

"Just want to top it off by having another good race at Chicago. The championship isn't really in my mind now at all."

"I definitely have to say Jay has an advantage," said Cunningham, summing up the championship battle. "We're all going to be at the front. It's not a secret. It's just really going to come down to who races the best."

5. McCann to debut at Chicagoland: Veronica McCann, a 23-year-old Australian, passed her rookie test Aug. 31 at Kentucky Speedway and will make her Indy Pro Series debut at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 9.

McCann, who twice has finished third in the Western Australia Sprintcar state championship, will drive the No. 3 Brian Stewart Racing entry in the season finale at the 1.5-mile oval.

"We were very happy with the test," said team manager Doug Hoy. "She did everything that we asked and everything the car would do. We're very optimistic about this weekend."

McCann will be the third woman to drive in the Indy Pro Series. Mishael Abbott has seven career starts in the series, while Sarah McCune has one. McCune debuted at Chicagoland last year, winning the pole and leading the first five laps.

"I was very nervous before the test," said McCann, whose five years of sprint car experience came on dirt tracks. "I have no experience in this type of racing, but I had an absolute blast. My goal is to finish the race. I'm quietly confident about the race. I don't know how well I'll fare against the other drivers until I'm out on the track in practice, but like I said, I'm quietly confident."

McCann attended Lyn St. James' Driver Development program late last year after deciding she wanted to pursue her motorsports career in America.

"I wanted to run in America on paved ovals," she said. "It was strictly a career move. I've driven sprint cars for five years, and there are very few sprint car drivers who can make a career out of it. I was up for a change."

The full effect of that change will become evident Sept. 8 when practice and qualifying take place for the Chicagoland 100.

6. Wieringa teams with Racing for Kids for Chicagoland: Tom Wieringa, of Oak Brook, Ill., will drive the No. 4 Racing For Kids® car in the Indy Pro Series season finale at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 9.

"This is my first year as a Racing For Kids driver," said Wieringa, who finished 12th in his Indy Pro Series debut in the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May. "I am totally in sync with the charity's mission of focusing public attention and funding on improving child health care in America. Hopefully, driving the 'Racing For Kids' car will bring a lot of attention to our cause."

Wieringa, who also operates food distribution, trucking and contract packaging businesses, will be part of a Racing For Kids visit to a Chicago area Children's Hospital in the week prior to his race at The Chicagoland Speedway.

Racing For Kids® was founded in Detroit in 1989, and since then its representatives have visited more than 15,000 sick children in more than 340 hospitals in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan and Australia. During these visits, the drivers meet with children individually, talk about their passion for racing and hand out colorful Racing For Kids® baseball caps as well as sign autographs and pose for pictures.

"I believe these visits help the kids get better faster," said Wieringa, who recently participated in a Racing For Kids® visit to Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. "We're able to take a child's mind off their illness and enjoy the excitement of the racing world."

Now in its 18th year of operation, Racing For Kids® has raised nearly $4 million for the hospitals it has visited through donations and specific fund raising events for children's hospitals across the country.

***

The final IndyCar Series event of the 2006 season is the PEAK Antifreeze Indy 300 presented by Mr. Clean at 1:30 (ET) p.m. on Sept. 10 at Chicagoland Speedway. The race will be telecast live by ABC and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network. A Spanish-language telecast of the race will be carried by ESPN Deportes. The IMS Radio Network broadcast also is carried on XM Satellite Radio channel 145 "IndyCar Racing" and www.indycar.com. The fifth season of Indy Pro Series competition concludes with the Chicagoland 100 on Sept. 9 at Chicagoland Speedway. ESPN2's coverage of the Chicagoland 100 will be televised at 2 p.m. (ET) on Sept. 14. Live streaming video coverage of the weekend's IndyCar Series and Indy Pro Series practice and qualifying sessions and the Chicagoland 100 will be available at www.indycar.com.

-credit: irl

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Series INDYCAR , INDYLIGHTS