IRL: Smarts will win at Nazareth

This will be a momentous weekend for the Indy Racing League, which puts on its 100th race, the Firestone Indy 225 at Nazareth Speedway on Sunday. Born of an idea in president and CEO Tony George's mind in 1994, the first IRL IndyCar Series race...

This will be a momentous weekend for the Indy Racing League, which puts on its 100th race, the Firestone Indy 225 at Nazareth Speedway on Sunday.

Born of an idea in president and CEO Tony George's mind in 1994, the first IRL IndyCar Series race took place at Walt Disney World Speedway on January 27, 1996. That race was won by Buzz Calkins, who went on to become co-champion the first season with Scott Sharp, amazingly still competing in League races.

Together with marking one hundred events, this weekend's contest is the final professional race at Nazareth, host to the Indy Racing League, USAC, CART and NASCAR over the years. Owner International Speedway Corporation decided to close the circuit, a money-loser for years, rather than make improvements.

While Tony Kanaan continues to lead the Indy Racing League points standings over Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice and teammate and two-time winner Dan Wheldon in a [typically] ferocious fight, engine maker Honda has already wrapped up their championship, doing so at Kentucky Speedway earlier this month. Indeed, Honda has won all but the season opening race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, taken by Sam Hornish Jr. in his Marlboro Team Penske debut.

Italian chassis maker Dallara has an opportunity to clinch the constructors' title at Nazareth over American-built Panoz G Force. The latter chassis again won Indy - for the second consecutive year - with Rice, who has accounted for three of Panoz G Force's four victories in the 12 races held to date. IRL newcomer Adrian Fernandez secured the fourth victory at Kentucky Speedway.

Nazareth is a strange little circuit, nestled near the Pocono Mountains and resort area. While classified as an oval circuit, it's more of a "roval", a road-course cum oval track. Like all mile ovals, there is a premium on handling here making setups for this final race a priority.

With its elevation changes Nazareth is a tricky track to conquer. Last year's contest went to Helio Castroneves of Marlboro Team Penske, but the likable Brazilian has had a ghastly season to date without one visit to Victory Lane.

After finishing second to Hornish in the season opener, Castroneves has earned three other podium slots and lies fourth in season standings. Both he and Hornish might be doing better, but Toyota has not kept pace with Honda's 3-liter engine development.

Kanaan, his perennial opponent has been steady in his season to date and, like Rice has three victories to his credit. Even more important is the fact that Kanaan has finished out of the top five only once at Homestead.

Tony Kanaan was one of five contenders in his first IndyCar Series season in 2003 and looks to stay on top of the standings through to Texas, barring an unlikely mechanical failure.

That's one of the remarkable statistics about this 2004 season, in fact. There have been so few mechanical breakdowns this year as to make the IRL's first two years, 1996-97 look like anomalies. Reliability is due to the engine makers' preparation, the uptick in team abilities and the extremely deep field that populates Indy racing these days.

Last weekend Buddy Rice made his sole error of the 2004 campaign. Trying to pass Tomas Scheckter on the first lap, Rice spun, impacted the wall and ended his day before it had barely begun. It's unlikely he'll make the same error twice and, like Kanaan has to be considered a contender for victory here at Nazareth.

Don't count out any of Kanaan's three teammates: Wheldon, two-time winner Dario Franchitti or Bryan Herta, who has yet to visit Victory Lane this year, unlike the other three members of Andretti Green Racing. Herta, an exemplary road course driver whose oval skills have been questioned has the goods to take the win, as do any of the four AGR drivers.

Don't dismiss Rice's teammate Vitor Meira either. The Brazilian member of Rahal Letterman Racing has hounded his teammate throughout the season despite not joining the tour until Twin Ring Motegi, race #3 in a 16-event campaign.

Pit road problems have hampered Meira's ability to win races thus far in his stay with RLR; he had Rice provided the second closest finish in League history when they came to the Kansas checkers just 0.0051-seconds apart, Rice in front by a whisker.

Fernandez, the Mexican who won the Belterra Casino Indy 300 after joining the IndyCar Series at Phoenix in a dismal debut, and teammate Kosuke Matsuura improve with each race. Fernandez was second in the Honda Indy 225 at Pikes Peak International Raceway last weekend - race #2 in a three- race, three-weekend sprint - and knows the Nazareth oval well from his long career in CART.

Rahal Letterman Racing and Fernandez/Super Aguri Fernandez Racing provide the large attack for Panoz G Force against Dallara. Team Target's Scott Dixon, the 2003 IndyCar Series champion and his new teammate Darren Manning haven't provided the fireworks expected of them this year at all. Manning has been the more consistent of the two as Dixon has thrown away good results over the past 12 races.

That this duo are not succeeding as expected can be traced, of course to the problems with their Toyota engines but also to the propensity for Target Chip Ganassi Racing to produce their own parts for the Panoz G Force chassis. Have they over-engineered their cars? It's a likely situation.

Where last year at this time Chevrolet Racing was on a high note with the Cosworth-produced Gen IV Indy V8, this year they've fallen back to third place behind Honda and Toyota with no victories to date. Tomas Scheckter has tried to remedy that problem but his dismal luck prevents him from visiting Victory Lane for Pennzoil Panther Racing.

Scheckter has had every black cloud hanging over his efforts: he was drilled by Franchitti at Phoenix, got involved in accidents with Mark Taylor (Richmond) and all by himself at Nashville, suffered gearbox failure at Milwaukee - as well as a pit accident, a pit fuel fire in Kentucky and broken half shaft last weekend at Pikes Peak.

Red Bull Cheever Racing has been up and down as well, with Alex Barron taking an excellent third-place podium in Texas and Ed Carpenter finally executing a good finish of eighth at Kentucky. Beyond that, it's been famine for Eddie Cheever's group.

As for the balance of teams, Scott Sharp's record of winning at least one race in the prior eight IndyCar Series season looks like a wash for 2004, Townsend Bell took over the second Panther seat (nee Menards) and has shown pretty well in his debut season but hasn't shaken up the world, Greg Ray climbed out his co-owned Access Motorsports drive to accommodate Mark Taylor, who hasn't done nearly as well as Ray might have had he stayed.

Felipe Giaffone and the Dreyer & Reinbold team are suffering through a tough season, Tora Takagi, who was the 2003 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year has failed to show the form he did last year when the team ran Panoz G Force chassis with their Toyota engine.

A.J. Foyt IV still has no engineering staff to assist him other than his famous grandfather and finally, there's the Patrick Racing team that started the season at Indy with Al Unser Jr., who wisely decided to vacate that spot after Richmond, and hired Jaques Lazier to finish the year; their eighth place in Pikes Peak was almost a win.

So what to expect in the Firestone Indy 225? This weekend's race, the third in a three-weekend sprint will go to the teams that have sufficient depth to be fresh after two tough races in Kentucky and at Pikes Peak. The resources of talent, equipment and mojo will dominate again, which is why - despite the fact that they are the local team - it's time to bet against Team Penske.

Will a Honda team that understands how to make their chassis work over a long stint win lucky race #13? It's likely. This race will, as most at Nazareth do, turn on caution periods and strategy in the pits. A smart driver and team will turn up in Victory Lane for the final time at Nazareth Speedway.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Darren Manning , Buzz Calkins , Greg Ray , Felipe Giaffone , Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Scott Sharp , Helio Castroneves , A.J. Foyt IV , Adrian Fernandez , Dario Franchitti , Tony Kanaan , Tora Takagi , Bryan Herta , Alex Barron , Townsend Bell , Dan Wheldon , Buddy Rice , Chip Ganassi , Tony George , Sam Hornish Jr. , Ed Carpenter , Jaques Lazier , Vitor Meira
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing