The Indy Racing League fans witnessed another thrilling IndyCar Series race on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway oval this afternoon, as Scott Sharp scored his ninth career victory in the AMBER Alert Portal Indy 300 over Vitor Meira, the American veteran arriving at the finish line just 0.0779 seconds ahead of his Brazilian challenger.
The second generation driver - whose father was a sports car winner in his youth - would lead 60 laps of the 200-tour contest and took the point for good on the 169th lap, relegating Wheldon to second at the time. When the final of four cautions ended on lap 175, Sharp sprinted into the distance, Vitor Meira on his tail and that's where they stayed until the checkered flags flew.
In taking his ninth career win in his 110th IndyCar start, Sharp showed he hadn't lost the touch as he held his line and skillfully defended position. "My job at the last green was to free the car up as much as I could with adjustments in the cockpit. I thought somebody would slingshot me at the end and Vitor kept trying," Sharp explained. He ended a 40-race victory drought going back to the IRL's first Twin Ring Motegi race in 2003.
"We had powered our way up to the front and when we popped out (from the last pit stop) we were in the lead. The guys had been giving me good pit stops all day and this is a big key. It's hard to pass at times so you had to maintain or try to increase your position in the pits."
His sponsor Delphi moved with Sharp from Kelley Racing to Fernandez Racing this year and the partnership has been ongoing for eight years and 93 races. "They never wavered, even through the tough times and I'm thankful to be able to give back."
Knowing the "inside was the place to be, even though it was quite bumpy, especially on new tires," Sharp realized he had to stay there and forced Meira below the white line on the final run-up to the checkered flags.
"I tried to surprise Scott on the last lap by staying high and then diving low for the inside. But he was right on the line and I would have had to go below the white line, so I couldn't do it this time. We're doing the right things to position ourselves for a win and it will come to us," he declared. "We can't do more than that."
Wheldon, one of four Andretti Green Racing drivers was the sole man in that group to finish the contest as his teammates retired with mechanical problems. "I kind of felt lonely out there" without his teammates around.
On the final pit stop and restart Wheldon "locked up the fronts coming into the pits, which cost me a little bit, but honestly, I think the two cars in front of me were just a little bit faster than us today," he conceded.
Alex Barron notched his best finish of the season in fourth place from 18th grid position. "We're really happy with how things went today," the Californian remarked. "We had a really good setup on the car and it was solid the whole race. We had super fast pit stops and moved forward every time we came in." The consistency of his car throughout each stint was the key, Barron said.
Helio Castroneves came from the back (15th) to finish fifth this afternoon, using teammate Sam Hornish Jr.'s setup to get him to the front. "My crew did an unbelievable job on the pit stops and kept me near the front the entire race. Our gearing was a bit tall, so when we restarted a few guys got around me and we weren't able to run with the lead pack" of four cars. "We've had a couple of tough races, so I'm happy we were able to bounce back."
Buddy Lazier, who won this race in 2000 and 2001 finished sixth in his fifth appearance of the 2005 season, with "a really good racecar at the end of the race." Hornish Jr. took seventh place after running amongst the leaders most of the day but made an out-of-sequence stop on lap 153 that ruined his chances for a win. "The car was better than where we finished," he said.
Kosuke Matsuura secured his second best result of the season in eighth (he was 7th at Texas), considering the event "a good race for me. The car was good and I was able to enjoy the race."
A.J. Foyt IV's Dallara, now equipped with a Chevrolet engine propelled the Texan to ninth place, equaling his top result (at Homestead in the season opener). "It's a lot more exciting to run at the front," he said. "I have to hold my breath a little longer!" Jimmy Kite rounded out the top ten for his best finish of the season.
There were 13 cars on the lead lap at the close, as Tomas Enge, Patrick Carpentier and Ryan Briscoe each completed all 200 laps. The balance of 16 cars still running were Buddy Rice, one lap in arrears and Jaques Lazier fighting to finish 197 laps.
Danica Patrick, the polesitter stalled on pit exit, losing track position. On the second restart, she had problems getting out of second gear, necessitating a long pit stop. She finished in the final, 16th position, completing only 184 laps.
When the race began Patrick fell back on the start, allowing 2004 IRL champion Tony Kanaan and teammate Wheldon to fight for the lead until the 107th lap, when Meira took the point. Scott Dixon was the first driver to retire on the 28th lap when he experienced terminal electrical difficulties. He caused the first caution from lap 28-36.
Ed Carpenter brought out the second yellow when he was trying to make room for the lead pack converging on him. He believed something broke at the rear of the car and he slammed, without injury into the turn 1 wall. Yellow flew from laps 69-75 and everyone pitted.
The green flag emerged on the 76th lap and Kanaan and Wheldon went at it again, but by lap 83 they had lost a strong pursuer, as Tomas Scheckter retired with a possible injector problem on his Chevrolet. Scheckter had been in the lead pack after the first caution period and pit stops, working from 22nd when his team changed the engine after practice yesterday.
Kanaan was next to exit the contest when he slowed dramatically at the halfway point, a wheel bearing failure again ending his day. Caution flew again on lap 114 for five laps to clear debris in turn 3. Kanaan's teammate and Michigan winner Bryan Herta was next out on the 145th lap with a gearbox problem, but that wasn't the end of Andretti Green Racing's agony.
Dario Franchitti, who had lost his right rear wheel on the first round of pit stops (lap 30) and had to make a second stop for replacement a lap later, slowed on the 168th lap, bringing out the final caution when his car, too, suffered wheel bearing failure. Roger Yasukawa was the final driver to retire on the 175th lap with a mechanical problem.
Wheldon continues to lead the point standings with 455 and Hornish Jr. has a firm hold on second with 365 points. Kanaan is third (350), Franchitti lies fourth with 345 and Sharp holds 326 fifth place points after his victory today.
The Indy cars take off for the Rocky Mountains and the Honda Indy 225 on the Pikes Peak International Raceway mile oval next Sunday. Franchitti was the 2004 victor there, but it remains to be seen if Andretti Green Racing's massive brain trust can figure out why their squadron is having these suspension difficulties and put a remedy together in time for the contest.
The competition for wins in "the new IRL" is heating up tremendously and Sharp is glad to be at the front of the field after several fallow seasons.
"Look at this field," he said. "It's as deep as deep gets and anytime you can get a win racing against the best that there is, it feels much more rewarding and that much more proven. I'd much rather take a win right now than two years ago, especially after all that's gone on. There's great drivers that have not won this year so it's definitely gratifying to be able to pull one out."