IRL: Fontana: Rahal Letterman Racing preview

RLR trio looks to close out 2005 season with a victory HILLIARD, Ohio -- The final chapter of the 2005 IndyCar season will be written this weekend at the California Speedway in Fontana. For Buddy Rice, Vitor Meira and newly crowned Bombardier...

RLR trio looks to close out 2005 season with a victory

HILLIARD, Ohio -- The final chapter of the 2005 IndyCar season will be written this weekend at the California Speedway in Fontana. For Buddy Rice, Vitor Meira and newly crowned Bombardier IRL IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick, the Fontana is an opportunity to put an exclamation mark at the end of the season.

Buddy Rice's last IRL IndyCar Series victory came at MIS in August of 2004. It was on the big ovals in 2004 that Rice and RLR staked their championship claim. After suffering through an up and down season, Rice is optimistic heading into the finale.

"Going to California definitely gives me a lot of confidence," said Rice, whose best 2005 finish was second at Sonoma. "Our cars are strong on the big ovals. We qualified well at Michigan. We didn't have the best race car in the beginning, but by midway, we caught the front pack and were running well before we suffered a mechanical setback. Last year at Fontana, we qualified in the front and I think it was Helio (Castroneves) and I were running 1-2 for over half the race, then we had a bit of an issue that slowed the car down. That cost us basically the win because I think we had one of the fastest if not the fastest car there. We are trying to end this not-so-good season on a decent note and getting geared up for '06."

Patrick likewise is looking at success in the final race to serve as a springboard for 2006. "It is always great to win the last race of the season," said Patrick who will make just her 17th IRL IndyCar Series start this weekend. "It serves as a great motivation for everybody involved with the program to go into the off season with a win. California Speedway is a the kind of track where we have run well this season. Certainly if you go back over the years Fontana is one of the tracks where Rahal Letterman Racing has done extremely well. I feel pretty confident coming into this weekend. Our last oval race at Chicagoland was our best of the season. I ran up front with the leaders, stayed in the lead pack and I was right there at the end. I said at the start of the year that I wanted to gain experience and use what I learned to improve on track. Chicago was an example of how far we have come this season."

Vitor Meira is still searching for that elusive first victory. This Sunday he will make his 45 IRL IndyCar Series start. Twice this season Meira has finished second (Kansas and Kentucky) and the California Speedway provides him with another excellent chance to claim that first win.

"My goal coming into this season was to win my first race and I still haven't accomplished that," said Meira. "Our cars will be good at California and it would be a great way to finish the season with a victory. I think we'll be in the hunt right to the end."

For Rahal Letterman Racing it will be the last chance to keep alive the team's annual winning streak that dates back to 1998 when Bryan Herta won at Laguna Seca. RLR has won 15 races in the last seven years and currently carries the second longest annual winning streak in North American open-wheel racing (Newman Haas Racing). In 2002 the team's lone win came at California Speedway when Jimmy Vasser won the California 500.

MEIRA LOOKS TO LOCK UP SEVENTH IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP

Popular Brazilian Vitor Meira enters the final race of the 2005 season seeking his much talked about first win, but also looking to lock down his position of seventh in the IRL IndyCar Series Championship. A year ago Meira finished eighth in the title chase despite running only 14 races while everyone else in the top-ten ran 16.

"The DNF at Watkins Glen really hurt us in terms of the championship and our final position," said Meira. "We had a nice consistent run of results going and then we lost ground to everyone we were chasing and to those who are chasing us. You can't worry about where this driver or that driver is during the race. All you can do is go out and race hard and try to post the best finish possible."

Meira has posted the top RLR finish in ten of the 16 races this season. However he has not been the top finishing Rahal Letterman driver since Pikes Peak in mid-August.

"We have had a decent year, but we need that big finish to end the year right," said Meira. "I am anxious for the first win. I am not obsessing about it, but I am ready for it to happen so we can move on to the next challenge."

PATRICK EYES ROOKIE MILESTONES AND RECORDS

With the Bombarider IRL IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year title secured, Patrick has her eyes on a couple of other IndyCar Series rookie marks. One being the record for pole positions by a rookie, which she currently shares with Tomas Scheckter and she is focused on becoming just the fourth rookie, and the first since Scheckter, to win a race.

"It would be nice to set the pole record, especially because I have been close on several other occasions to breaking the mark," said Patrick who narrowly missed the pole at Motegi, bobbled on a potential pole run at Indy and started second at Nashville. "You are only a rookie once so this is the only time you can set these records."

Much has been written and discussed in the media about when Patrick might win her first race. Of the 12 current drivers who have won in the IRL IndyCar Series, it took an average of 33 starts to record their first win. Only three of the 12 won in their first 17 races (equal to Patrick's first season) and only two of them actually won in their rookie campaign.

"Nobody puts more pressure on me than I put on myself," said Patrick. "I think there are a lot of people hoping that I win at Fontana to bring a nice ending to the season, but I look at this as a beginning not an ending. It has been an incredible year. A year I will never forget. We have had some amazing runs and some weekend's haven't been so amazing. Coming into the season I said I wanted to learn and improve and that I wanted to win the Rookie of the Year at Indy and for the IndyCar Series. I have done that so I feel my year has been successful. That said we can really top this year off nice with a victory this weekend."

LONG YEAR COMING TO A CLOSE FOR RICE

Murphy's Law may be renamed Rice's Law. The old adage that 'whatever can go wrong will' has certainly been applicable to Buddy Rice's 2005 season. A year ago Rice was third in the championship with three wins and five pole positions. This year Rice enters the race at Fontana 15th in the title chase with a pair of podium finishes, 17 laps led and seven DNF's.

"We never were able to build momentum," said Rice. "We started off with a couple of DNF"s and that put us behind in the championship. Then when it looked like things were falling into place heading to Indy with a third at Motegi, I got hurt and missed the Indy 500. Every time we took a step forward something would knock us back. It is frustrating, but the thing I am most proud of is that my crew and I have persevered and I think we are stronger for this."

Rice would love nothing more than to end this frustrating season on a high note with a win Sunday at Fontana.

"There is a long off season ahead and you want to build momentum going into the down time," said Rice. "Every team out there is looking to kick off their 2006 program with a strong run Sunday to end 2005."

RAHAL LETTERMAN RACING NOTABLES. . .

Vitor Meira has posted the top Rahal Letterman result in ten of the 16 races this season, but he hasn't been the high finisher in the last three races. Buddy Rice finished second at Sonoma and Danica Patrick was the high finisher at the last two races. . . .The three Rahal Letterman drivers have combined to lead 128 laps this season led by Danica Patrick with 61. RLR cars have led in eight of the 16 races. . .Rahal Letterman Racing has won at least one race every season since 1998. That seven year streak is the second longest (Newman Haas) such streak in North American open-wheel racing. . .Although she is a rookie, Danica Patrick is actually the senior member of the RLR driving trio in terms of starts with the team. Patrick will make her 46th start for RLR this weekend when she takes the green flag at California Speedway, while Buddy Rice will make his 32nd RLR start and Vitor Meira his 31st RLR start. Bobby Rahal is the career leader in starts for RLR with 116 starts. . .Buddy Rice needs one win to move into a tie for the all time leader in RLR wins. Bobby Rahal won four times during his championship season of 1992 and Kenny Brack won four times during his 2001 season in which he finished as the runner up.

-rlr-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Jimmy Vasser , Bobby Rahal , Kenny Brack , Buddy Rice , Danica Patrick , Vitor Meira