Adrian Fernandez took the battle today in the Toyota Indy 400 by 0.0183 seconds, but second finisher Tony Kanaan won the war.
The 2004 Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series championship belongs to the driver of Andretti Green Racing's #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda/Firestone Indy car, who is busy setting records for finishing every single lap in this 16-race campaign and taking 14 consecutive top five results.
The Mexican veteran recorded his third victory of the season, second consecutive win and third win in the last five races. Fernandez led only 18 laps, but secured the most important tour of this 2-mile oval. "I never thought the IRL were really going to get the restart in, but they did a fantastic job. Even on the restart I got sideways (coming to the flags). I put so much power down. I knew had a stronger car and Tony really respected my line. It was great. It was so close!"
Kanaan, who led 25 laps in the contest including laps 194-199 under the final yellow started from the rear of the field after failing to make a qualifying run yesterday. His team changed engines for a third time, which would have relegated Kanaan to the rear in any event. By the second lap he was up to tenth, by lap seven he was running fourth and Kanaan only fell lower than third under pit stop exchanges.
"It was a tough race for us, even though it probably didn't look that tough because we had a great car. I did some doughnuts over in Turn 2 for Greg Moore; he's still in my heart. This is a dream come true and now I can relax a little bit," the ebullient Brazilian said.
Called for a blocking penalty on lap 186, Wheldon complied and wasn't bitter: "I think Brian Barnhart made a very bad call. I think he should go to our workshop, meet with my engineer and look over the data. I have a lot of respect for the guy, but the decision was very wrong."
Until this afternoon, IndyCar racing at California Speedway was pretty much owned by Sam Hornish Jr., who finished fourth today in #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota. Leading four laps and racing high and low, Hornish said he was "happy with the car today. It was handling really well in traffic but, unfortunately I couldn't find any packs to run with for most of the day." To the end, he found some dancing partners and moved up to his final finishing slot.
Buddy Rice took fifth with the #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz G Force/Honda and thought his car was "pretty good today. I don't think we had the speed of a couple of the cars out there, but we were solid enough to hang in there with Tony and Helio [Castroneves, the MBNA polesitter] for most of the day. Our plan was to race with the leaders and get the car ready for the last 20 laps, but I don't think we had the speed we needed at the end."
Dario Franchitti made it three Andretti Green Racing cars in the top six, taking the #27 ArcaEx Dallara/Honda from ninth on the grid to sixth at the close. The Scot never led but he did stay in the top ten all afternoon during this 2 hour 14:12.5029-minute race. The final car on the lead lap, Castroneves' #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota ended up seventh and he did lead the most laps, 145 this afternoon.
One lap down, second starter Scott Dixon brought his pink #1 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota eighth to the flags and called the run, "a very average race for us. We may have concentrated on qualifying a bit too much and should have put our effort more on the race setup. The car was just really loose on entry into the corners and I had some trouble on the high line."
Townsend Bell's ninth place result was the best for Chevrolet drivers; he, like Dixon was one lap down in the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevy. Having mid-race troubles, he "made up some positions by the finish. We just couldn't keep up when we were running alone," he explained. Mark Taylor was the highest finishing rookie in the 21-car field in tenth place with the #13 Access Motorsports Panoz G Force/Honda.
Fifteen drivers made it to the finish, with Scott Sharp 11th in the #8 Delphi Dallara/Toyota, rookie Ed Carpenter 12th with his #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevy - as he creeps up the Bombardier Rookie of the Year standings, edging season-long leader Kosuke Matsuura, who brought the #55 Panasonic/ARTA Panoz G Force/Honda home 13th. Tora Takagi was 14th with his #12 Pioneer Dallara/Toyota and Bryan Herta, suffering gearbox woes in the #7 XM Satellite Radio Dallara/Honda was 17th, 12 laps back of the leaders.
The first caution came on lap 9 when Vitor Meira brushed the turn 2 SAFER barrier with his #17 Team Centrix Panoz G Force/Honda and continued. He would later retire due to a broken gearbox and was classified 21st. The Delphi Safety Team took a good look at the area and the race went green once more on lap 14.
The field would continue to run green until lap 173, when a debris yellow bunched the field. Felipe Giaffone retired the #24 Purex/Aventis Dallara/Chevy in 20th on the 174th lap with a broken gearbox after a mid-pack run. A.J. Foyt IV, having a good run in the #14 Conseco Dallara/Toyota and moving up the field hit the turn 2 SAFER barrier on lap 178, bringing out the third caution and relegating the young Texan to 19th place.
Alex Barron's day ended on the 186th lap when he, too, hit the SAFER barrier in turn 2 and ended his day in the 351 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevrolet.
The final yellow, though was a "Tale of Two Tomas'." Newest member of the IRL Tomas Enge, driving his first contest in the #20 Patrick Racing Dallara/Chevy spun in turn 4 and collected the hapless #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet of Tomas Scheckter. Enge didn't know what happened stating, "I was not very close to other cars ahead of me, as I had been earlier. I spun very quickly. Maybe it was a puncture and probably my mistake."
There was no way for Kanaan to hold off the charging Fernandez and he gave way, preferring to take his IndyCar Series crown at the same circuit where the Brazilian secured his first American title seven years ago, in the Dayton Indy Lights Championship.
"I'm proud of Tony. I'm proud of the whole team," crowed Andretti Green Racing co-owner Michael Andretti. "Tony drove like a champion from the first race. He drove like that last year too. He deserved this one. The whole 7-Eleven team did. It was a team effort and everybody contributed from all four teams. They all love each other and they are really great friends."
If Andretti's comments sound too good to be true, they certainly are not. The camaraderie shared by the full AGR team has been a hallmark of their season and there's still one race left for them to punctuate success. The Chevy 500K at Texas Motor Speedway is set for October 17th at Texas Motor Speedway, where Kanaan earned his second victory of the year in June. Who knows? He might do it again!