IRL: One hand on the trophy

IRL: One hand on the trophy

There are only two contests left in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series' 16-event campaign and two drivers remain with a chance of winning the title. Andretti Green Racing teammates Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon are mathematically eligible...

There are only two contests left in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series' 16-event campaign and two drivers remain with a chance of winning the title.

Andretti Green Racing teammates Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon are mathematically eligible for the championship and they are posed around the huge trophy that goes to the winner as photographers snap images of the duo.

Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon.
Photo by Ron McQueeney - IRL.
But there's a problem. Wheldon just can't stop laughing every time he looks at Kanaan, who is going out of his way to make sure his young squadmate guffaws just as the cameras are poised to click.

Buddy Rice is on hand for the photo opportunity, even though his aerobatics at Chicagoland Speedway last month eliminated him from the title chase. Wheldon has to look straight ahead or at Rice in order to keep his composure this Friday afternoon; he just can't help himself.

Tony Kanaan has always been a mischievous sort and nothing's changing as he approaches his second American championship.

He and engineer Eric Cowdin, who was with Kanaan when he earned the Dayton Indy Lights Championship here at California Speedway back in 1997 have gone through the scenarios that will give the Brazilian another title; after about half an hour, though, Kanaan's had quite enough.

He doesn't want to think about it. During the three weeks between Chicagoland's Delphi Indy 300 and the Toyota Indy 400 that will be held Sunday afternoon on the 2-mile California Speedwway, Kanaan has spoken with other champions about his future. "I talked with Alex Zanardi for about an hour about his experiences and asked some key questions."

He also spent time with Gil de Ferran - "these are two good guys" - during the layoff, as Kanaan was stuck at home during Hurricane Frances' rampant run through Florida. "Rubens called from Thailand on his little vacation between races," Kanaan said of Barrichello, second in this year's FIA Formula One championship to teammate Michael Schumacher.

All three of these drivers had the same message for Tony Kanaan: "Do like you do every race and don't let it get to your head, they all said." Zanardi, his teammate during the star-crossed 2001 CART season reminded Tony Kanaan to "do what you know what to do. Just drive your race and don't be stupid like I have been sometimes," Zanardi admonishes.

"Just approach it as another race," de Ferran reminds his compatriot. Kanaan just hopes "we don't have to take this to Texas where I lost the title last year. It will be over when it's over, hopefully Sunday. We don't want to make changes because that gives us more room for mistakes.

"I have one hand on the trophy," Kanaan declares, "but I need two hands to lift it."

Wheldon is resigned to his fate as a runner-up to Kanaan and has a different agenda for the final two races of the IndyCar Series campaign. "I would like to finish the season with the most wins of any driver in my first full year of IRL competition," Wheldon says calmly. "I'll be very happy if Tony wins the title," he says of his teammate who, like Wheldon has three wins for the season.

"I'm happy for [Andretti Green co-owner] Kim Green because he brought me to this team. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the guy and think, with either one of us taking the title, Kim's championship will make me very happy."

The Briton realizes he has done "all I can. I'm going to try and win it but Tony, as you know, is one of the best drivers in the world" and rarely makes errors, using Kanaan's 13 straight top five results this year as an example.

"It's not over, but it's out of my control. I'm not going to do anything different here but I'll try to win if I can," says Wheldon.

Buddy Rice.
Photo by Angelo Lisuzzo.
Rice's surge for the title ended upside down on the Chicagoland Speedway back stretch but the Arizonan is still pleased with what he's done this season in earning the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race win along with two others (Kansas and Michigan) to go with his five poles - best of the season thus far.

While Kanaan's been racking up the top fives, though, Rice has had three accidents that took him from title contention. "We need to finish the season strong and winning the Triple Crown (Indy, Michigan, California) for the first time since 1978 would be cool."

Rice thinks his Panoz G Force/Honda package can propel him to second in the standings and deny Andretti Green Racing a one-two sweep in the title race. "Second is feasible for us and every little bit of development from Panoz G Force and Honda will help. They are both still looking to improve each race.

"No matter what happens we've had a strong season here at Rahal Letterman Racing. We're still strong and a few improvements can go a long way" toward helping Rice achieve his goals.

At this point, there is less than 100 points covering this trio, as Kanaan holds 538 first-place points, Wheldon owns 463 and Rice has 443 points with two races left to run. They are all trying to stay calm, approach the race methodically and keep their composure.

It's tough to do when you glance at one another and can't stop laughing. And that's a good thing in Indy car racing.

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Series INDYCAR