Dario Franchitti is rapidly becoming the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series' "King of the short tracks" in 2004, as the Scotsman won his second IRL race of the year in the Honda Indy 225 at Pikes Peak International Raceway. After finishing...
Dario Franchitti is rapidly becoming the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series' "King of the short tracks" in 2004, as the Scotsman won his second IRL race of the year in the Honda Indy 225 at Pikes Peak International Raceway.
After finishing fourth here last year in his final race before undergoing back surgery, Franchitti at least had knowledge of this small track adjacent to the Rocky Mountains, knowledge he used well.
Franchitti led morning warmup, started fourth in his #27 ArcaEx Dallara/Honda/Firestone challenger and then led 128 laps of this Honda Indy 225 en route to the win over Adrian Fernandez' #5 Quaker State/Telmex Panoz G Force/Honda, which finished 2.2429 seconds behind the Scot. Teammate Dan Wheldon earned the third podium slot in his #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda.
"I really had the best car today," Franchitti proclaimed after the race ended. "Our last stop was awesome (on lap 161) and I couldn't be happier. This morning the car felt really, really good. Once I got the lead back (after that pit stop) I just worked to keep the gap right." His first pit stop, when Dario left the pits with the fuel nozzle still attached didn't hurt him much as he remained within the top six on the track.
Fernandez, who won last weekend's Belterra Casino Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway had difficulty keeping his car beneath him throughout each stint. "The car had very good balance at the beginning of a run but then would go off. The balance was okay and the guys did a fabulous job in the pits. We were good," the Mexican veteran said, "but not good enough to catch Dario."
Wheldon, the junior member of the four-car Andretti Green Racing team that includes Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta thought today's race was "good fun. Any time you finish on the podium it's good. We just do the best job we can week in and week out and we'll see where that leaves us at the end of the season." Franchitti, he said was "very deserving of the win."
The IRL elected to start the 225-lap contest a wee bit early with the presence of storm clouds on the radar screen and 22 cars and drivers took to the track with the possibility of rain cutting the day shorter than expected. That rain did not materialize until well after the racing was complete, however and the event went the full distance.
It was a wild one for most everyone involved, on a track that Wheldon and Fernandez both proclaimed "one of the most challenging circuits where we race."
Darren Manning, who had practiced third in yesterday morning's initial test session here finished fourth in a strong drive of the #10 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota to gain first in the non-Honda class. "We worked so very hard to get this finish. We lost a lap because of a refueling problem on our first stop, so we took a gamble on fuel strategy and it paid off for us," he said. "We got a yellow at the right time and, by getting our lap back I was able to ride the momentum to the end."
Polesitter and point leader Tony Kanaan paced the first 30 laps in his #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda but faded back with handling problems and finished fifth. Kanaan elected to "drive a conservative race. We chased the car all day, made it better then we made it worse. Towards the end," he related, "I had a pretty good battle with my teammates. If we were to finish fifth every race, I think we could win the championship. We just need to capitalize on all our opportunities and stay focused."
That was a better result than what befell Buddy Rice, who has been hounding Kanaan much of the season. Rice spun his #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz G Force/Honda on the backstretch in first lap and retired from the event. "The car felt good going through turns one and two, but when Tomas [Scheckter] went by on the outside the rear end just came around." Rice retained second place points, but the gap is now 463-395.
There were only three cautions in this sprint, which lasted just under one hour and thirty-five minutes. The first was for Rice's incident on the back stretch and lasted from laps 1-7; the second was called on lap 121 for debris in turn 2 and the final yellow came for when Sam Hornish Jr., who had led 67 laps in the #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota and looked like, well, the Sam Hornish who won two IRL titles, lost the rear of his car in the third turn, wiggled and slammed into the turn 4 wall.
Hornish said his car was "handling real good and we were trying to work our way through traffic. I was trying to get back up on some guys and the car just got away from me. I don't know what happened; I wasn't pushing it that hard. It was a weird deal." He was examined by the IRL's director of medical affairs Dr. Henry Bock and released.
Of the 22 starters, 16 finished the event. Behind Kanaan came his regular nemesis Helio Castroneves in the #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota, who was "happy with how the car handled today. The team gave me great pit stops and we were running up front for most of the race. On the last restart I got caught behind a backmarker and dropped from third to seventh but we were able to make up a place in the final laps," he related.
Vitor Meira finished seventh from his third starting slot in the #17 Team Centrix Panoz G Force/Honda and sighed, "Boy, my problem was in traffic because the car was just too loose. Every time I'd make a run on another car the rear end would break loose, but when I was by myself the car was good. When you are in the middle of the pack, you have so much air coming around you that you can barely hang onto the steering wheel!"
Eighth place equaled a win for the #20 Patrick Racing Dallara/Chevy of Jaques Lazier and he stated, "We're just going to keep building on this momentum. We're getting stronger and stronger and starting to unify as a team." The squad's first race was at the Indy 500 this May with Al Unser Jr. driving.
Bryan Herta was ninth, one lap down in the #7 XM Satellite Radio Dallara/Honda and it was "a very long day. I'm just glad to get this one over with and get on to Nazareth." Tenth place went to Alex Barron in the #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevrolet who related, "We had good pit stops all day, which helped us along, but we had a ltitle bit of understeer throughout the whole race."
Rookie Ed Carpenter was the highest place first-year driver in the #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevrolet, finishing eleventh. Knowing the right time to peak, his car was "the best it's been all weekend. As the track got rubbered in, our car got a lot better," Carpenter said.
Townsend Bell took 12th in the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevy, better than teammate Tomas Scheckter, who ran to the front in the beginning of the contest with his #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet yet failed to finish for the seventh time this year. He broke a half-shaft and retired on lap 161 while making his pit stop. The left rear wheel just would not spin.
Kosuke Matsuura, who started last in his #55 Panasonic/ARTA Panoz G Force/Honda drove a brand new car that hadn't been on any track until this morning and persevered to 13th position. Mark Taylor was 14th in the #13 Access Motorsports Panoz G Force/Honda, followed by Scott Sharp's #8 Delphi Dallara/Toyota and Felipe Giaffone in the #24 Purex/Aventis Dallara/Chevrolet.
Scott Dixon had decided to park the #1 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota after 93 laps when he realized there was no way he would win the battle with an ill-handling car and Tora Takagi did the same with the #12 Pioneer Dallara/Toyota after 101 laps. A.J. Foyt IV had already left the competition with handling problems after 53 laps were completed; he made two pit stops in that short time period and finally just parked it.
The final short-track contest of the 2004 season takes place next weekend as the IRL celebrates its 100th contest and Nazareth Speedway holds its final event, the Firestone Indy 225. As the tractor-trailers depart for Pennsylvania, Kanaan is first in points with 463, Rice lies second with 395, Wheldon holds 381 third-place points, followed by Castroneves with 326 and Franchitti, up to fifth place with 319 points.
"We'll know more about the championship after Chicago," Kanaan remarked yesterday. Today, he knows that even with four more races to run, there's four drivers nipping at his heels.