Today's IndyCar Series and Indy Pro Series headlines
1. Infineon Raceway event is key piece in championship scrum -- and contenders know it
2. Tight title fight in Indy Pro Series could be decided at Infineon
3. Klein among those heading back to school
4. Hornish Family receives gift
5. Fans can ride with favorite driver
1. Infineon Raceway event is key piece in championship scrum -- and contenders know it: Six contenders representing four teams separated by 79 points.
The top two -- teammates no less -- with only a seven-point gap.
Two races, including a grueling road course test Aug. 27 at Infineon Raceway, remaining to decide the IndyCar Series champion.
Two-time series champion Sam Hornish Jr. leads the all-star pack in the standings, but his lead is precarious. And he doesn't have a competitive advantage on road courses. Marlboro Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves has a long road/street racing resume, but his fortune in the five IndyCar Series non-oval races so far is nothing to crow about. The same could be said of reigning IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon, though his Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Scott Dixon, has chalked up consecutive victories at Watkins Glen International.
Vitor Meira and Tony Kanaan, the 2005 winner in the inaugural race on the 2.26-mile, 12-turn Infineon Raceway circuit, are peering through the window and hoping the top four make a costly mistake this weekend.
Below are the contenders' outlooks for the race within a race at the picturesque Sonoma Valley facility:
Sam Hornish Jr.: "Infineon is one of the most fun tracks we run on all year because of the elevation changes and different types of corners. The circuit also demands the most of the drivers physically, so it's a big challenge. We were quick in qualifying last year, so hopefully this season we'll be able to match that effort with a quality race result as well. Obviously, I want to win this race very badly, but I need to take a more realistic approach to it. We just need to bring the Marlboro Team Penske car home in the top five so we're set up well for a run at the championship in Chicago."
Helio Castroneves: "I'm looking forward to going back to Sonoma this weekend, as we feel we have some unfinished business there. Last year, we had a very fast race car, but unfortunately we were taken out early. Needless to say, we hope our luck changes this year and we can duplicate our earlier street course win in St. Petersburg.
"Infineon Raceway is like a roller coaster, and it's a lot of fun to race there. The circuit is very challenging, not only for the drivers, but also for our engineers. Right now, we're really enjoying the championship battle. Marlboro Team Penske has been incredible all season, and I'll definitely be looking to retake the lead in Sonoma heading into the last race at Chicago. Nothing would make this season more special than to earn my first-ever national championship."
Dan Wheldon: "I think we've had a little bit of bad luck at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and to think that we're still this close to possibly leading the points and having a viable chance of winning the championship that's definitely going to keep us motivated. I think to some degree the pressure's off both of us because we are third and fourth in the points. We just have to attack every weekend. If we just do what we normally do and run up front and lead laps, we can hopefully close the gap and maybe even come out on top.
"This is definitely a race we can close that gap. I think this is going to be the race that's going to mix it up. I can see some strange things happening with strategy and stuff like that. You might have the fastest car in the race here, but I've got the feeling that this race is going to be very influential in turning things around and doing things people don't expect. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. If it's not, I can say I think I've driven probably the best I've ever driven. I think better than last year. I've led a lot of laps. It just hasn't gone for me, and sometimes you have years like that."
Scott Dixon: "I think this is probably a good spot where we can close up on Sam, who's been struggling a little on these road courses. I think we have to go into these last two races and basically try to win at any cost to close that gap. Thirty-three points for me is quite big. Twenty-four for Dan is also big. It could be a good day for us to make a big gain on points. We've had a lot of luck on road courses with a second-place finish in St. Pete and the two wins at Watkins Glen, but it's always tough here. It's difficult to pass. Hopefully, we'll qualify up front. Strategy-wise, that will make it easier for us. It could be a good day for us to make a big gain on points."
Vitor Meira: "We'll approach this race the same way we approached Watkins Glen and every other race this season. We've been good on road courses and there is no reason to think we won't be this weekend. We certainly have the championship in mind. But this is a make-or-break weekend for us. We either catch them now or we're out of the championship. We've been underdogs all season, and that makes it fun for us."
Tony Kanaan: "It's hard to describe how excited I am to be going back to Infineon Raceway. It's special to be able to race on a natural-terrain road course, let alone one that we won at a year ago. We've ran well on the road courses this year, and this is a good opportunity for Team 7-Eleven to get back into Victory Lane."
2. Tight title fight in Indy Pro Series could be decided at Infineon: With three races remaining, the Indy Pro Series is locked in its closest battle for the championship in series history. Nine drivers remain eligible for the Firestone Firehawk Cup while a mere 25 points separate leader Jay Howard and second-place driver Jonathan Klein.
Race weekend at Infineon Raceway features not one opportunity but two for the contenders to sort themselves out in the battle for the title. The Carneros 100 will be contested Aug. 26, and the Valley of the Moon 100 will be Aug. 27.
"It's going to be wild," said Klein, whose average finish in four road course starts this season is 4.5 -- better than any other driver. "Sonoma is going to be a big weekend. That's going to be a very tough weekend. (Bobby) Wilson is right behind me in points, as is Jaime (Camara). It's going to be a struggle. Everybody is going to be fast. All the top runners are going to be quick. It's going to be a dogfight until the end of the season, I think."
Klein, a 19-year-old series rookie from Long Grove, Ill., has finished in the top five in every road course event this season, including third at the most recent event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July.
Wilson, in third place 39 points behind Howard, has averaged a sixth-place finish in the road course events. He's the only driver among the top six to have recorded a victory in those races. The 24-year-old from Oconomowoc, Wis. won at Watkins Glen in June.
"I know going into a road course I'm going to be strong and really going to try and claw back that gap and maybe even jump ahead," said Wilson, who started on the front row at Infineon Raceway last year in his Indy Pro Series debut. "Hopefully, things will go my way. I'm going for the championship. I'm going to go there with the intentions of winning, and wherever that puts me, that's all I can do."
Both are trying to make up ground on Howard. The Englishman recorded two podium finishes in the series' only other doubleheader weekend at St. Petersburg, Fla., in April. He was sixth at Watkins Glen, but was knocked out in the first corner at Indianapolis and finished 18th. He needs to outscore Wilson by 15 points and Klein by 29 points in the two races at Infineon to clinch the championship.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm here to win every race and prove to everyone what I'm capable of and what Sam Schmidt's team is capable of," said Howard, who has race wins on the ovals at Nashville and Kentucky. "That's my focus; win every race. If I can't, as close to that as possible.
"I'm not planning on having a bad race. Obviously, Infineon is going to be a big decider. If we go there and finish in the top two or three in both races, then I think that sort of secures the championship. We can go to Chicago, enjoy the race, no pressure at all and try to get it up to five wins total."
Nick Bussell, 61 points behind, and Camara and Wade Cunningham, both 62 points behind, will need very strong race weekends to pass three competitors for the series point lead.
"We're just taking it race by race, going for wins," said Cunningham, the reigning series champion. "We're well out of the points championship. You know, we just go weekend to weekend."
Dominating on a doubleheader weekend won't be easy. The top six finishers in the Carneros 100 will be inverted for the start of the Valley of the Moon 100. That means the winner of the Carneros 100 will start sixth and need to pass five drivers in order to record a sweep.
"It adds to the competitiveness," Camara said.
The final three contenders, Brett Van Blankers (-125), Chris Festa (-129) and Alex Lloyd (-134) need top-three finishes in the Carneros 100 to remain alive. Among the trio, only Lloyd has recorded a top three this season. He won on the road course at Indianapolis, and he was third in the second race at St. Pete.
3. Klein among those heading back to school: Across the country, students are heading back to school. Race car drivers aren't exempt. Jonathan Klein, a 19-year-old rookie in the Indy Pro Series, started classes at Butler University in Indianapolis on Aug. 23.
Klein's first week of classes will be light -- he leaves for California on Aug. 24 for a doubleheader race weekend at Infineon Raceway, where he hopes to move from second in the championship standings into first.
"I'll be missing some of my first week of classes, which is nothing new," Klein said. "I'm used to that every year. I'm looking forward to that and getting back into the rhythm of school but still concentrating on the rest of the season."
After Infineon, the Indy Pro Series has just one more race weekend -- the season finale at Chicagoland on Sept. 9.
Klein completed his freshman year at the University of Dayton but opted to transfer to Butler so he could be closer to Andretti Green Racing's headquarters.
"I wanted to be able to be in Indy, stay focused on racing and put myself in the best environment to further my career," he said.
4. Hornish family receives gift: Speedway Children's Charities recently presented Indianapolis 500 champion Sam Hornish Jr., along with his wife Crystal and parents Sam and JoEllen, with an original painting created by award-winning artist Bill Neale.
The oil-on-canvas painting by Neale, a founding member of the prestigious Automotive Fine Arts Society, features Hornish driving his Indy 500-winning No. 6 Honda-powered Dallara and was presented in appreciation of the Hornish family's support of the Sam Hornish Jr. Celebrity Bowling Tournament that benefits Speedway Children's Charities Texas chapter.
The bowling event has raised nearly $200,000 for the charity in its two years.
5. Fans can ride with favorite driver: Ticket holders can bid on the chance to take a pre-race lap around the circuit with stars of the IndyCar Series on Aug. 27. The auction will be held in the Wine Country Winner's Circle at 11:30 a.m. on race day. Drivers who will be up for grabs are Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta, Sam Hornish Jr., Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick, Buddy Rice and Dan Wheldon. The top bidder for each driver will watch a portion of pre-event ceremonies on the start/finish line and take a parade lap around with their driver. All proceeds will benefit youth groups in Sonoma County through Speedway Children's Charities, the charitable arm of Infineon Raceway.
The next IndyCar Series event is the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at 3:30 p.m. (EDT) on Aug. 27 at Infineon Raceway. The race will be telecast live by ESPN 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 continues with the Sonoma 100 doubleheader on Aug. 26-27 at Infineon Raceway. ESPN2's coverage of the doubleheader races will be televised at 2 p.m. on Aug. 31.