INDYCAR SERIES NEWS AND NOTES -- Aug. 9, 2007 Today's IndyCar Series and Indy Pro Series headlines: 1. Results, luck needed in as title race enters home stretch 2. Three still chasing Lloyd with four to go 3. Former Reds pitcher experiences ...
INDYCAR SERIES NEWS AND NOTES -- Aug. 9, 2007
Today's IndyCar Series and Indy Pro Series headlines:
1. Results, luck needed in as title race enters home stretch
2. Three still chasing Lloyd with four to go
3. Former Reds pitcher experiences IndyCar Series in two-seater
1. Results, luck needed in as title race enters home stretch: Scott Dixon's recollections of the 2003 IndyCar Series five-way championship battle cross paths with this year's X factors as the series heads into its final four push this weekend at Kentucky Speedway in the Meijer Indy 300 presented by Coca-Cola and Edy's.
Whereas all the '03 races were contested on ovals, this year two road/street venues complement the 1.5-mile Kentucky and Chicagoland high-banked ovals. Consecutive weekends -- 80 laps on the natural-terrain Infineon Raceway course and 90 laps on a refurbished Detroit Belle Isle street circuit -- bisect the ovals. Consistent performances, helped along by a resounding victory or two, will reward the champion to the tune of $1 million at the Championship Celebration in September.
Dario Franchitti retained a 24-point advantage over Dixon exiting the Firestone Indy 400 last weekend. Race winner Tony Kanaan closed to 81 points, while Dan Wheldon is 119 points and Sam Hornish Jr. 127 points behind.
"In '03, it was totally hard out," said Dixon, whose runner-up finishes in the final three races secured the title by 18 points over Penske Racing's Gil de Ferran. "We had an extremely fast car, but had a lot of problems with reliability and we crashed in a couple of races. That was a different year. This year the cars are very reliable, everybody is very consistent. So if you have a bad race it takes a toll."
In last year's final four, Hornish left Michigan International Speedway trailing Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves by eight points after a water pump issue relegated the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion to 19th place. A victory from the front row two weeks later at Kentucky Speedway was the catalyst to his unprecedented third series crown.
"Last year, we lost the points lead at Michigan and it wasn't looking real good for us," Hornish said. "We went into Kentucky thinking, 'This is where we're going to win or lose the championship.' We were able to not only run good all day long but win the race and lead the most laps, which brought us right back into the points lead. Then when we went into (Infineon) and it was all about maintaining, not making a mistake and giving ourselves an opportunity to fight for the championship at the last race at Chicago."
Hornish reached his goals, finishing ninth at Infineon and running third to Wheldon's first at Chicago to claim the season-long race on the first tiebreaker (four victories to two) after they were equal in points.
"Each one of those races we went into with a different mentality," Hornish says. "Each one poses different threats and provides different opportunities for success."
Hornish is a two-time winner at both Kentucky (last year he won from the front row) and Chicagoland. Dixon was runner-up at Kentucky last year, while Wheldon has finished third in two of the past three years. Franchitti's best finish in three trips is sixth in '04; Kanaan's high is fifth in his '04 title season.
"We had a great car last week at Michigan and it is going to be equally as important for us to show up with a good car this week at Kentucky," said Franchitti, whose string of 11 top-five finishes was broken at MIS. "The Canadian Club team has done really well giving me the setups needed to keep us in the championship battle. Last week was unfortunate, but we have to put it behind us and look forward to this weekend."
Dixon finished 15 points off the pace last year, illustrating the mastery (and a dose of luck) required in the final four lineup. He closed with runner-up positions at Kentucky and Chicagoland and a fourth at Infineon, but the damage from a 16th place at Michigan was too much to overcome. Even falling three spots from his pole start at Infineon robbed Dixon of valuable points.
"A mistake is going to cost you dearly," said Dixon. "You have to be consistent, but you have to go in there with the mind-set of winning the race. You have to try to get back to the points lead anytime you can."
2. Three still chasing Lloyd with four to go: Four drivers remain mathematically eligible to win the Indy Pro Series championship. While none of them will claim possession of the Firestone Firehawk Cup at Kentucky Speedway on Aug. 11, all four seem to agree that Alex Lloyd's 111-point lead over rookie Hideki Mutoh is nearly insurmountable.
"From my point of view, if we can stay pretty much where we are and not lose too many points, even if we don't gain any, we'll be in a position where we just have to finish the next few races," said Lloyd, who has won seven of 12 races this season in the No. 7 Lucas Oil/Isilon Systems car for Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
"We saw in Mid-Ohio when we didn't finish we'd need another four of those really before it becomes an issue. I'm not really thinking too much about it. We're just trying to have a good race and make up for the disappointment of the last couple of races, and if we do that, the championship will sort itself out."
Lloyd's finishes of 11th at Nashville and 22nd at Mid-Ohio allowed Mutoh to make up only 27 points in the standings.
"This is my first year racing in Indy Pro Series and all the races have been a great learning curve for me," said Mutoh, who won on the road course at Indianapolis in June and who will make his IndyCar Series debut with Panther Racing at Chicagoland on Sept. 9. "It would be great if I were leading, however I will continue to do my best in each race and try to win as much as possible in the rest of the season. I was able to test in Kentucky at night, so I am hoping that will help me in the race this weekend."
When the series leaves Kentucky, any driver more than 158 points behind Lloyd will be eliminated from championship consideration. That could leave Wade Cunningham (-166) and Bobby Wilson (-188) on the outside looking in.
"Mathematically there might be a chance but practically we're not," said Cunningham, the 2005 Indy Pro Series champion who has five career victories, including a flag-to-flag win at Watkins Glen in July in the No. 27 Automatic Fire Sprinklers, Inc. entry. "But definitely we can finish second in the championship, and that's our goal at the moment. We just have to continue to provide strong results and continually beat Hideki. He was really consistent at the start of the year, but his results have been a little bit patchy these last few events, which has really helped us close the gap."
Cunningham has five consecutive top-five finishes, including three seconds. In two previous starts at Kentucky, he's finished second and third.
"I'm really looking forward to Kentucky," Cunningham said. "We were the strongest car there last year, we led the most laps, and I was leading on the white flag until I had contact and we got crashed out of contention.
"I'm going back with confidence. I think we've improved the Andretti Green package a lot since the start of the year. I think we've got a really strong superspeedway package, and I definitely think I will be one of the top two or three cars battling for the win there."
Wilson, whose two Indy Pro Series victories have come on road courses, finished seventh at Kentucky last year.
"I'm not even counting points anymore," Wilson said. "I'm just going to go out and do the best I can in the last four races and see what happens. You can never predict what will happen."
The Kentucky 100, the first night race in Indy Pro Series history, is scheduled for 9:10 p.m. on Aug. 11.
3. Former Reds pitcher experiences IndyCar Series in two-seater: With the temperature approaching 100 degrees Aug. 9, Tom Browning probably wished he were rather sweating on the pitcher's mound at Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark than on the pit lane at Kentucky Speedway.
The left-handed pitcher, who hurled a perfect game for the Cincinnati Reds in 1988 and won 123 games over 12 seasons in the major leagues, had the opportunity to take two laps around the 1.5-mile oval at 160 mph in the Indy Racing Experience 2-Seater.
Browning, who retired in 1995, traded in his Reds ball cap for a white Bell helmet and his khaki shorts for a Delphi firesuit. Gloves -- he got one for each hand.
As he climbed into the reclined cockpit behind seven-time Indianapolis 500 starter Davey Hamilton, the nerves started to make Browning feel a bit claustrophobic.
"When I first stepped in there, I felt really confined." Browning said. "I had to get my breath again, kind of get my wits about me, and then as soon as I got strapped in they took off. It was awesome.
"I never felt that nervous on a baseball field. No way, not even close. I practiced my whole life to do what I did."
As Hamilton guided the car down pit lane at 60 mph, the anxiety quickly gave way to excitement.
"It's incredible how fast you go, and then you hit the corners and you get thrown into that thing -- it was pretty awesome," said Browning, who remains active with the Reds in a variety of public relations and charity functions.
"I can't imagine having to do that for 200 laps. I've really just recently become a pretty darn good race fan. I like all sorts of racing now. This was probably one of the greater thrills of my life right here today."
The next IndyCar Series event is the Meijer Indy 300 presented by Coca-Cola and Edy's at 6:30 p.m. (ET) on Aug. 11 at Kentucky Speedway. The race will be televised live by ESPN2 and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network. The next Indy Pro Series event is the Kentucky 100 on Aug.11 at Kentucky Speedway. The race will be broadcast at 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 16 by ESPN2.