Sam Hornish Jr. knows exactly what he needs to do to take his third straight IndyCar Series title: win the last three races. He began that thrust today at the 1.5-mile banked Chicagoland Superspeedway oval by winning the Delphi Indy 300 by a whisker -- just .0099 seconds over Scott Dixon. Bryan Herta was third in this near-photo finish, .0100 behind the leader.
"All day long I was staying in line and trying to save fuel," Hornish said. "We were able to take a late pit stop (he went 66 laps between fuel stops) and get back up to the front. It was pretty exciting, wasn't it?" Hornish, who regularly prefers to ride at the top of banked tracks like Chicagoland had a car that "worked really good on the high line. The high side is generally where I like to be," he said.
Dixon thought it was a "pretty rough day out there. We were a bit slow on a couple of stops and I was told to stay back and conserve fuel" as well. "It was a shame about the final yellow," called when point leader Helio Castroneves lost power on the back straight on lap 187. "We were all running so close it was pretty dicey out there, going three-wide.
"I couldn't see where Sam was (on the last lap)," Dixon said, "so I looked behind me into turn 3 to make sure no one had a good run on me. Sam seems to get on the outside a lot. He's cheating," Dixon laughed. Hornish's response? "If you're gonna cheat to win by a couple of inches, you may as well cheat to win by a mile."
This was Herta's third straight P3 finish and, while he was overjoyed by the first one (at Kentucky Speedway), today the Californian was "relieved. We had an electronics problem early in the race and I had to switch to a different ignition. I was 16th at that point and had to claw my way back up front. I think every guy out there has stories to tell about this race today. I thought Sam won but I wasn't sure where Scott and I finished. He (Hornish) sure was working well on the outside line."
Herta's teammate, rookie Dan Wheldon took fourth today and led 32 laps. "I had a good car all day and we were very good in traffic. I could work with the car and with other people around me, so that made it comfortable."
Despite leading the most laps - 76 - Tomas Scheckter had to settle for fifth place today. "It's been like that all year long for us. We had another dominant car but Lady Luck wasn't on our side." He joined the majority of the cars pitting before the final yellow. Incredibly, none of the 19 finishers changed Firestone Firehawk tires on their final stops, meaning most had put at least 77 laps on their rubber.
For the first time in three Indy Racing League contests at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland oval, the polesitter did not win the race, as Richie Hearn finished 14th, the first car one lap down.
The race went green for the first 72 laps, and Hearn led the first 37, at one point pulling out more than two seconds on the scrapping cars behind him. Hearn relinquished the lead to Scheckter while Hornish moved up quickly from his eighth starting spot, leading for the first time on lap 52. Behind the lead pack of Scheckter, Hornish, Hearn and Felipe Giaffone during that period, Tony Kanaan had moved up to fifth.
This was significant because Kanaan had pitted on the pace lap because an air pressure sensor warning came on in his cockpit. He had no problem, but was relegated to the rear for the start. Kanaan would finish sixth. Giaffone had a blocking penalty that relegated him to 15th at the close, although he believed it unwarranted. "I got close to Scott and then backed out of it. There have been many worse than this where people didn't get penalized." He felt fine after his first race since crashing at Kansas early in July.
Alex Barron took seventh place in his first time with a Dallara/Chevrolet package. "I was happy with our race setup and think the weekend went great. We had really good balance in the car and the team had flawless pit stops. The [final] yellow caught us out for a couple of positions, but we're still happy with the result."
Rookie Roger Yasukawa had exited the pits behind Herta after the final round of stops and was second on the restart at lap 194. Scoring his second consecutive eighth-place finish, Yasukawa was still disappointed. "Bryan and I touched wheels and I had to get out of it or lose the car." Tora Takagi was ninth in a car that "never worked well in traffic" and Robbie Buhl took tenth.
The first yellow came on lap 73 and was for debris. The second, called when Kenny Brack had hard impact with the turn 3-4 wall on lap 120 put the Swede out of the race with a damaged car but, aside from a bit of pain in his left foot, he was fine. "I turned into turn 3 and there was a big bang. The rear end came around in a hurry," he explained.
Only Brack and Castroneves fell out of competition, yet the Brazilian retained his lead in the point standings with 439, while Dixon moved back to second with 427 points. Kanaan is third with 425, Gil de Ferran, who finished where he started, 12th, holds 422 4th-place points. Hornish is 41 points behind Castroneves with 398.
The lack of incidents, even with all the tight racing, side-by-side running, three-wide on many laps is due to respect between competitors. "I think the IndyCar Series will continue to grow with good, clean races like this," Hornish emphasized.
"All three engine manufacturers came across the line side by side today and I was lucky enough to come out in front. I hate to lose," Hornish said, "so I try to win as many as I can. Pennzoil Panther Racing deserves this win as much as I do and our key for the next two races will be to stay out of trouble."