The Indy Racing League IndyCar Series intended to hold a 200-lap Delphi Indy 300 race on the 1.5-mile D-shaped Chicagoland Speedway oval this afternoon, but instead it looked like a hockey fight broke out.
The big story of this race was adversity: who overcame it and who gave in to it. Fernandez' second pit stop was a miserable one as his air jack failed when he pitted from the lead, forcing the Fernandez Racing team to use manual jacks front and rear, an exercise that takes an added five seconds. Even so, Fernandez recovered, led 83 laps in mid-race and at the end and earned his victory with the wiles and skills that make a driver great.
"When the air jacks failed I knew like that we were not going to win the race," Fernandez said. "At that point I knew I had a car able to win, but with the pit stop there was no way. So we had to be smart and, at some stages in the race I was just sitting back, trying to see how the race was going to develop.
"In the [final] restart, the key was to pass Bryan. I pushed very hard and I made the pass, which I'm very proud. With all the effort the engineers have done, we had a fast car and that's why we won. I didn't see many guys passing on the outside and we passed on the outside to Bryan to get the lead. After that," Fernandez continued, "we just stayed there."
Herta overcame a very loose car at the start and went out of sequence on his pit stops to gain track position. "We decided to get off-sequence on our pit stop strategy to get our track position back that we lost when the car went loose and that worked out really well for us. We actually ended up leading," Herta crowed. "It's a great relief to be up here. I feel really good about my day."
Not only did the Brazilian complete the distance, he managed to distance himself from all but one title contender, teammate Dan Wheldon, who took fourth in the #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda, leading 18 laps in the process. Unlike others Wheldon had "a very, very clean race with Buddy [Rice] and he was excellent to drive with today. It was another fantastic result for us, to finish 2-3-4. That's a great day. It was a difficult race out there and it's just a shame we can't race as close as this without incidents happening."
The sole member of the AGR group to drop out was Dario Franchitti, who exited the contest after 126 laps when his #27 ArcaEx Dallara/Honda experienced gearbox failure.
The race started cleanly, albeit one lap after expected with a misaligned field the first time around. Green flag running ensued for a full 86 laps before caution came out on lap 87 for debris in the first turn. The initial contact occurred on lap 111 when Townsend Bell hit the SAFER barrier on the backstretch, coming to rest just before Turn 4 with his #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet and retiring from the contest.
The third caution came out on lap 131 when Jaques Lazier made contact with the SAFER barrier in the second turn, collecting the hapless Tomas Scheckter who inexplicably went high to avoid Lazier's #20 Patrick Racing Dallara/Chevy. Both Lazier and the #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet retired after the incident. "It looked like Lazier touched [Vitor] Meira. Once I got in the dirty air, I just followed him into the wall," Scheckter explained.
After qualifying sixth and running near the front in the early going, A.J. Foyt IV "got into a bang-up a few laps before" he made contact with Mark Taylor, bringing out a debris caution from laps 141-145. The duo finally got together in earnest on the 155th lap, ending the day for both Taylor's #13 Access Motorsports Panoz G Force/Honda and Foyt's #14 Conseco Dallara/Toyota. Both Foyt and his famous grandfather, A.J. Foyt Jr. believed something may have broken on the Conseco car during the first incident, causing the second.
A long clean-up for this fifth caution ensued, as parts of both cars were scattered from the final turn through the front straight to the first corner, forcing pace car driver Johnny Rutherford to run the field through the pits so the Delphi Safety Team could carefully complete the cleanup.
The Delphi Safety Team put the stricken car back on its wheels and out climbed Rice, none the worse for wear. "It's just close racing all of the time," the 2004 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner said. "It's wheel to wheel and things can happen. The track causes some of the action because you can run so high that you go three wide. This is the second time in less than a year that the #15 has been on its lid and that's not what we are trying to do."
With this incident, Rice was eliminated from championship contention, as was the 10th finisher, MBNA polesitter Helio Castroneves, who "had a tough day out there" in the #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota. "We did everything we could do but unfortunately, it just wasn't enough." Castroneves' Dallara had too much downforce, "which made it tough to stay with the lead pack."
His teammate Sam Hornish Jr. had a better go of it in the 36 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota, finishing sixth behind Vitor Meira. The latter driver was involved in quite a few wheel-banging incidents, but who wasn't today? Meira was "just playing the game, waiting to see how the cars would draft and running different lines" in his #17 Team Centrix Panoz G Force/Honda. Hornish, on the other hand was "really glad to have made it to the end. It was like a horse race out there, very tight and very competitive."
Scott Dixon recorded his most competitive finish in quite a while, bringing the #1 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota to the flags in seventh place and stating, "We had a top-five car but when you have 10-lap shootouts like this, it's going to be anyone's game. It was probably the easiest day I had this year because of how strong the car was."
Felipe Giaffone's run in the #24 Purex/Aventis Dallara/Chevy to eighth place was his best result of the 2004 season and he led five laps in the process, during pit stop exchanges. He still agreed the race was "a little bit too crazy. I had too many close calls and, at one point I thought there's no way I'm going to make it to the end."
Behind Sharp in ninth, Castroneves in tenth and the last car on the lead lap, rookie Ed Carpenter took 11th in the #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevrolet at the track where he made his IndyCar Series debut last season, followed by teammate Alex Barron in the #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevy and, finally, Tora Takagi in the #12 Pioneer Dallara/Toyota finished 13th, the final car still running and one lap down. Rookie Kosuke Matsuura, who led three laps failed to finish with his #55 Panasonic/ARTA Panoz G Force/Honda due to electrical problems, the team revealed.
The banging and bumping that occurred today didn't fell too many drivers, but some were clearly not amused by the antics they saw and experienced. In particular Kanaan felt there had been too many chances taken on the track, but he had to consider the point in the season, the fight for the championship and the nature of the series.
"The beauty of this series, racing like this, that's what makes the fans stand up. So people can't keep stressing enough that we have to take care of each other, but with three races to go, a lot of guys want to win the race. A lot of people are fighting for the championship and it always has a tendency to get a little crazier," Kanaan considered.
Now ensconced in first place with a dominant 538 points, Tony Kanaan and his quarter of the Andretti Green Racing team need only compete for overall honors with the youngest member of the squad and the regular foil for their practical jokes, Dan Wheldon, who lies second with 463 points.
Rice, eliminated from the championship holds 443 points following today's race, Castroneves has 379 and Franchitti 366. With Fernandez up to sixth with 365 points, however, the race for second through fifth has tightened. There are still two contests to run and the next one takes place on October 3rd at the 2-mile California Speedway oval in Fontana.
Will the next two events be as wild as this one? We'll have to watch and see, but it's obvious the Indy Racing League's formula for competition is not only working, but working safely as, even with rollovers, somersaults and wall-smacks in the Delphi Indy 300, they all walked away.