IRL: Nuances of Nashville

The Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series completes its first half of the 2004 season this weekend once the League has put on its third, and final night race of the year at Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.33-mile concrete oval southeast of the Music ...

The Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series completes its first half of the 2004 season this weekend once the League has put on its third, and final night race of the year at Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.33-mile concrete oval southeast of the Music City.

The Firestone Indy 200 is set to take the green flags at 7PM EDT Saturday evening (live on ESPN) on one of the more challenging circuits the League visits in its 16-race campaign. Nashville is considered a "handling" track by the bulk of IndyCar Series drivers that have competed on this unusual circuit.

The track's concrete surface is extremely sensitive to temperature changes and, with the event beginning before nightfall and running 200 laps (266 miles) the drivers and teams who most easily adapt to challenges posed by a mutating surface and the intense competition the League is famous for providing should be at the front.

There won't be a returning victor from 2003, as Gil de Ferran, who won the victor's guitar in his final year of IndyCar Series competition has retired happily. The other two podium finishes will be back to try it again, but with the Toyota engines on Scott Dixon's Panoz G Force and Helio Castroneves' Marlboro Team Penske Dallara lagging behind competitor Honda, this duo might have to rely on their respective teams' setup abilities.

Certainly Toyota - and Chevrolet as well - are looking to meet the challenges offered by Honda, which has won all but one contest thus far in 2004.

With Sam Hornish now in the Toyota camp as Castroneves' teammate, anything can happen and this year anything has.

Hornish really hasn't looked like the smooth operator who won back-to-back IRL titles in 2001-2, but last year in Nashville he took the moribund Gen III Chevy Indy V8 to its first lead laps of the season when he ran at the front of the pack for four laps. Can Sam rebound for his second win of the season?

When Dan Wheldon finished fourth here last year, most folks considered that an anomaly, but it was the Briton's first big step toward his Bombardier Rookie of the Year award. Even if his Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda isn't working well in qualifying, his extraordinary Andretti Green Racing team seems to be able to get Wheldon to the front.

Teammate Tony Kanaan in the Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda and Bryan Herta, driving the XM Satellite Radio Dallara/Honda had okay races in Nashville last year, but point leader Kanaan can't be counted out anywhere the League races. Neither can Herta nor the fourth member of the AGR stable Dario Franchitti, a Tennessee resident who has been driving all season with something to prove.

The man who could have used the winner's guitar last season, Kenny Brack isn't driving yet this year but his seat is taken by two-time 2004 winner Buddy Rice in the Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz G Force/Honda. Rice has been quick everywhere the League races, has an affinity for unusual circuits and appears to be the class of the field together with teammate Vitor Meira, driving the Rahal Letterman Racing Team Centrix Panoz G Force/Honda.

In the Chevy camp, Red Bull Cheever Racing's Alex Barron is excited about returning to Nashville Superspeedway, where he secured his first IndyCar Series victory in 2002 at the wheel of Dallara/Chevy, the same package the Californian is using this year. Working as a substitute last July, Barron finished fifth with a Panoz G Force/Toyota package. Look out for this guy; he could be a sleeper, just as he was in Michigan last year.

The very fast Tomas Scheckter is still searching for his second IRL win but with the strength of Panther Racing behind him Scheckter could also be among the top runners not wearing the big "H" on their cars. Scheckter and [new] teammate American Townsend Bell feel the pressure of having to perform for the two-time championship team; can they fulfill the promise this Saturday night?

In an evolving grid, there are two big changes for this weekend's eighth race. At Access Motorsports, IndyCar Series rookie and 2003 Menards Infiniti Pro Series champion Mark Taylor takes over the team's Panoz G Force/Honda while co-owner/driver Greg Ray works on getting more money for this petite squad.

Responsibility for a good run in the Patrick Racing Dallara/Chevrolet falls to Jaques Lazier for this weekend's race as the second-generation driver and previous IRL winner gets back into a familiar package, albeit with a new team. No doubt the California resident is happy to get out of the IMS Radio Network broadcast booth and back in a car where he belongs for his first start of the season.

Newcomers at the tough Nashville Superspeedway oval include Dixon's teammate Darren Manning, who has defined his post-Indianapolis season as one of shunts. True rookie Kosuke Matsuura and Adrian Fernandez both make their first starts on the 1.33-mile concrete bowl, while Ed Carpenter makes his first IndyCar Series start here.

Felipe Giaffone was injured during the Nashville race last year and Barron drove his car, but the Brazilian returns to competition in Dreyer & Reinbold's Purex Dallara/Chevy. Sophomore driver A.J. Foyt IV is enthusiastic about his possibilities in the Conseco Dallara/Toyota on the Nashville track, one he professes to enjoy.

If you were betting on this race, the fourth held in tire provider Firestone's hometown, the first instinct would be to go where the action is, in the Honda camp.

But with similar setups to Kansas on a slightly smaller and more levelly- banked course, the race will come to the drivers who can get the handling together for imposed 20-degree wing angles (instead of 12 degrees) and methanol consumption on their 30-gallon tanks optimized for the changing conditions.

In 2003 there were eight cautions that slowed the proceedings for more than one quarter of the race (56 laps). If this race goes forward as cleanly as the Argent Mortgage Kansas Indy 300 two weeks ago, it'll be another crapshoot to the checkered flags.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Mark Taylor , Darren Manning , Greg Ray , Felipe Giaffone , Gil de Ferran , A.J. Foyt IV , Jaques Lazier  , Adrian Fernandez , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Bryan Herta , Kenny Brack , Alex Barron , Townsend Bell , Dan Wheldon , Buddy Rice , Kosuke Matsuura , Jim Beam , Sam Hornish Jr. , Ed Carpenter , Vitor Meira
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske