On Leap Day, February 29th, Sam Hornish Jr. made the big jump to victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway, leading Marlboro Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves to the checkered flags by a nominal .0698 seconds in the first Indy Racing League ...
On Leap Day, February 29th, Sam Hornish Jr. made the big jump to victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway, leading Marlboro Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves to the checkered flags by a nominal .0698 seconds in the first Indy Racing League IndyCar Series contest of the 2004 season. It was only the tenth-tightest finish in League history, yet the sixth time that Marlboro Team Penske has finished 1- 2 in a League event.
After trying to pass on his favorite, high line, Hornish had to go below Castroneves and held his line to the end of 200 exciting laps. About 40,000 sun-drenched fans spent nearly the whole race on their feet as the lead changed between six drivers even as five caution periods slowed the pace to an average speed of 151.094mph.
At the end it was the Ohioan who, once again, stole the thunder from Miami resident Castroneves and became the first Penske driver to take a win in his first drive with the team in Penske's 37 years as a team owner. Hornish also had the fastest lap of the contest on lap 184 at 216.593mph.
"Well, it definitely was exciting," Hornish said with a big smile. "I am partial to the old track configuration but this was a great day. Everybody at Team Penske has made me feel right at home." While Hornish sat behind his teammate for a great deal of the contest, he maintained his patience until the laps wound down. "Today was one of the highest on my list of achievements. I've got lots of emotions right now. I wanted to start the season this way but the most important thing was to remain focused and do the job."
Castroneves was gracious in admitting defeat, even as he recognized the benefit o9f putting up second-place points so early in the season. "The car was very well set up," he said, even as the team reverted to a higher downforce setting than they'd tried in qualifying yesterday and in morning warmup. "He definitely did a hell of a job and Team Penske did another good job. It's good points and that's what we need." Castroneves led the most laps, 85, of the 200-lap race.
The final step on today's podium went to the #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda piloted by Dan Wheldon, the 2003 IRL Bombardier Rookie of the Year. Wheldon led twice for a total of 14 laps and moved up from 14th on the grid. "This is an excellent finish for us," the Briton noted after his first race on this track. "We worked really hard this weekend and focused on the race. We didn't win, but the car was strong and I enjoyed every minute of the race!"
Tomas Scheckter made a good debut in the #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet to earn fifth finishing slot, leading 22 laps in the process and keeping the yellow car in the lead pack all afternoon. While he was a bit "unlucky with a yellow, it was pretty tough getting by people when it went side by side. The team had unbelievable stops and it's good to get some points on the board in our first race." The South African displayed a good deal of patience, something for which he's not been noted in his past two seasons.
IRL newcomer Darren Manning finished sixth in the #10 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota and learned about the competitive nature of the IndyCar Series in the process. While he fought a loose car early in the going, the Briton figured out what he needed midway in his second stint and became more comfortable in the car. Team owner Chip Ganassi recognized that progress: "I'm very proud of Darren today. He had a good first experience and we'll build on that."
Polesitter Buddy Rice looked poised to take his top starting spot to a good finish, but right after his first pit stop a cut tire meant he needed to bring the #15 Pioneer/Argent Mortgage Panoz G Force/Honda in for another stop. Rice led 49 laps and had one of the fastest cars throughout the race but track position foiled his hopes. He finished seventh.
"That was a tough break for Buddy and the team when we cut a tire," said Scott Roembke, Team Rahal general manager. "I was really strong out front and that is where I wanted to be," Rice added. "I think this team showed it can be strong once we got things in place."
Tony Kanaan spent much of the race in the top ten and brought the #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda home eighth. "It was a long day," he acknowledged. "I think the car was a little too 'stuck'", with a bit too much downforce. "I felt like a drove a pretty good race, but we didn't have enough today."
Scott Sharp, who qualified a dismal 17th in the #8 Delphi Dallara/Toyota finished ninth this afternoon. "We took a bit of a gamble on our pit strategy and it almost paid off for us. We just didn't have the speed we needed when we ran alone. We had to pit too early and ended up running alone, which was the kiss of death," Sharp said.
This wasn't the finish Robbie Buhl had hoped for after placing his #24 Team Purex Dallara/Chevrolet toward the front of the field in the late going. "We were better than 10th but we got stuck in stuck in sixth gear after the last stop." Lacking the ability to shift and pass as needed, Buhl still knows "we can run with these guys and they need to know we're back!"
Rookie Kosuke Matsuura finished 11th in the #55 Panasonic/ARTA Panoz G Force/Honda in his IndyCar Series debut. At the start of the race he had a big push in the car, which his Super Aguri Fernandez Racing team worked to cure before he lost a lap. Toward the end an electronics glitch caused him to lose his dash functions and the team had to tell him which gear he was using at any given time! "I learned a lot," Matsuura admitted, "and I had a lot of fun."
Ed Carpenter's 12th place finish in the #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevrolet was the best result for the team, as teammate Alex Barron was eliminated in a mid-race crash. Carpenter nearly crashed when he came too hot into the pits but saved it and continued.
Rookie Mark Taylor was first out of the race when he crashed on lap 40, bringing out the second caution period (the first was for debris on lap 32). The 2003 Menards Infiniti Pro Series champion performed a half-spin in Turn 3, made contact with the SAFER barrier and slid along the barrier into the fourth turn. He came to rest along the inside retaining wall, with damage to the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet, but not himself.
"We're not really sure what happened," Taylor explained. "We had a great race car all weekend and the Panther Racing guys really proved that we can qualify at the front (6th) and move our car up the grid during the race. This isn't how we wanted to finish, but this team had a great weekend."
Reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was next out of the contest on lap 88 after coming onto the pit road a wee bit too hot in his #1 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota. Admitting his error Dixon said, "Yeah, I just came in a little hot. I just got a little wide in the turn and lost it halfway through. I just lost it."
Dario Franchitti, who returned to IndyCar Series competition after back surgery last spring, exited the race on lap 105 after his #27 Arca/Ex Dallara/Honda had light contact with Matsuura in Turn 4. Franchitti was all right and considered himself "pretty lucky. The 55 car drove up into my left rear and spun me around. It's his first race, but when it starts to understeer, you should get out of the gas and not run into the car above you," Professor Franchitti advised.
Alex Barron, who qualified outside the front row had similar difficulties and crashed in turn 3 on lap 127, ending the day for his #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevy. Barron's difficulties were with Manning who "entered in too wide and the next thing I know, his car just started coming up the track. He hit me and put me into the wall. There was a lot of wandering going on out there."
The final car exiting the race was that of A.J. Foyt IV, whose #14 Conseco Dallara/Toyota suffered an engine problem that took him out of the running on lap 191.
The day, though, belonged to Marlboro Team Penske and to Sam Hornish Jr., who recorded his third victory in four starts at this Homestead-Miami Speedway oval. In fact, in 800 laps Hornish Jr. has led 314 tours, for a remarkable 39%! This is Hornish's 12th IRL victory - an continuing record - but the driver has eyes straight ahead. His goal this season is to finish first at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. In his first outing with a new team, it appears Sam is making all the right moves to achieve that dream.