IRL: Chicagoland: Race report

Hornish wins closest finish, takes points lead at Chicago JOLIET, Ill., Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002 -- Sam Hornish Jr. won the Delphi Indy 300 in the closest finish in Indy Racing League history, edging Al Unser Jr. by .0024 of a second Sept. 8 at ...

Hornish wins closest finish, takes points lead at Chicago

JOLIET, Ill., Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002 -- Sam Hornish Jr. won the Delphi Indy 300 in the closest finish in Indy Racing League history, edging Al Unser Jr. by .0024 of a second Sept. 8 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Hornish took a 12-point lead in the IRL standings over Helio Castroneves, who finished fourth, entering the season-ending Chevy 500 on Sept. 15 at Texas Motor Speedway. It was Hornish's fourth victory of the season, tying an IRL record.

"I'm sure it will be tough, and it will be a long run next Sunday," Hornish said of the season finale at Texas.

Hornish, who started from the MBNA Pole, averaged 146.319 mph in a race slowed five times for 57 laps by caution periods. He earned $126,600 for his seventh career IRL victory.

Buddy Lazier finished third in the No. 91 Coors Light/Life Fitness/Tae-Bo/Delta Faucet Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone, with Castroneves fourth in the No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone and Eddie Cheever Jr. rounding out the top five in the No. 51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone. Just .9387 of a second separated the top 10 cars at the finish in arguably the most exciting race in IRL history.

"We were just running wheel to wheel, as close as you could get," Lazier said. "It was a lot of fun out there, but it sure was hair-raising. You really have to trust everyone you race with."

Defending series champion Hornish and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Hornish raced side by side the last 21 laps of the 200-lap race. The gap between them was smaller than two-tenths of a second during those final 31.5 miles of racing, and the lead was smaller than a tenth over the last seven laps.

During that thrilling final chase, Unser maintained a low line in his No. 7 Corteco/Bryant Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone, while Hornish stayed high in his No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone. Meanwhile, another eight drivers raced behind them side by side over the last 20 laps, turning the front pack into nearly a 220-mph pace lap with incredibly high stakes and unnerving tension.

Neither Unser nor Hornish gained any advantage over the final five laps, and Hornish's winning margin was almost indistinguishable to the naked eye at the finish. Unser was on the short end of the closest finish in IRL history for the second time this season, as Jeff Ward edged him by .0111 of a second in June at Texas.

"I tell you, they don't come any closer than that," Unser said. "I thought I had him. Congratulations to Sam Hornish Jr. He and the whole Pennzoil team did a great job. It was exciting.

"We were able to get underneath him, and I was motioning to him to get in line, which he motioned to me to get in line, and I did. I wanted him to do the same, but it was to no avail."

Said Hornish: "I've got a lot of respect for Al and all the things he's done. Running beside someone who's as experienced as he is, and that I have as much trust in, is just like a high-speed pace lap, pretty much."

Hornish, Castroneves and Gil de Ferran remain eligible for the series title and $1-million bonus Sept. 15 at Texas. Hornish leads second place Castroneves, 481-469, with de Ferran third at 443.

But de Ferran's aspirations for a third consecutive open-wheel season title -- he won the CART championship in 2000 and 2001 -- took a serious dent when he crashed on Lap 52 in the No. 6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone. de Ferran, who was credited with 23rd place, suffered a concussion and was awake and alert when transported by air to St. James Hospital in Olympia Fields, Ill.

Castroneves started 21st, his worst of the season. But he wasted little time moving toward the front, helped by crafty driving and fast pit work by Marlboro Team Penske.

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves climbed to third by Lap 55. Castroneves took the lead for the first and only time in the race on Lap 159 after a fast pit stop. Unser passed Castroneves for first on Lap 167.

Then Unser and Hornish began their 220-mph game of chicken. They exchanged the lead nine times in 27 laps between Laps 169 and 195, often by inches. Hornish finally took the lead for good at the line by inches on Lap 195, with that gap holding steady over the final laps.

"The car was handling really well in traffic, and I was flat out," Castroneves said. "But we just didn't have what it took to win. The key thing is that we are still in the championship hunt going into the last race at Texas. I finished fourth at our first race there, so hopefully we'll be able to get the job done next weekend."

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Eddie Cheever , Buddy Lazier , Jeff Ward , Gil de Ferran , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Team Penske