IRL: St. Louis: Toyota Motorsports preview

TOYOTA CLOSES IN ON IRL MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP Toyota can virtually clinch the first IndyCar Series Manufacturer's Championship with a victory this weekend at the Gateway Indy 250. Toyota currently sports a 22-point advantage over ...


Toyota can virtually clinch the first IndyCar Series Manufacturer's Championship with a victory this weekend at the Gateway Indy 250. Toyota currently sports a 22-point advantage over second-place Honda (94-72) and a 40- point lead over third-place Chevrolet with the IRL's 10-7-5 point system. A victory this weekend would give Toyota at least a 25-point lead with five races remaining, requiring the manufacturer only to start the season's final five races to clinch the title.


Toyota heads to St. Louis looking for its third consecutive victory, and the manufacturer's ninth in 11 races, this season. Four different Toyota teams, and five different drivers, have registered win this season: Target Chip Ganassi Racing has three victories, Marlboro Team Penske and Kelley Racing have two wins each, and Mo Nunn Racing has one victory.

Individually, Scott Dixon (Target Toyota) has a series-high three wins (Homestead-Miami, Pikes Peak and Richmond), Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Toyota) has two victories (Indianapolis 500 and Nashville), and Scott Sharp (Delphi Toyota at Japan), Al Unser Jr. (Corteco Toyota at Texas) and Alex Barron (Hollywood Toyota at Michigan) each have one 2003 triumph.


After what appeared to be a break-through season in 2002 with his first IndyCar Series win and placing fifth overall in the series, Alex Barron found himself without a ride this season after sponsor woes sidelined the Blair Racing team. This year, Barron has established himself as the series' super-sub, having substituted for three different drivers. With a win in the last race at Michigan, as well as a fifth at Nashville and a sixth at Indianapolis, Barron has shown that he is certainly deserving of a full-time position with a top team. In fact, if you only include the races in which he has driven this season, Barron would be second in the points standings despite having worked with three different crews and having little pre-race testing.

The Southern California native has been on the verge of stardom since winning the Toyota Atlantic Championship title and series Rookie of the Year honors in 1997. His rookie championship came in just his second season racing cars after a number of karting championships. Barron moved into a CART ride in just his third season of racing cars and became the first Toyota driver to lead a lap in CART competition. Despite running for lower-tier CART teams, he was on the verge of a CART victory twice in 2000 in just six starts, only to see his car suffer mechanical breakdowns in the last 10 laps of each race.


St. Louis has been a gateway to victory for a number of Toyota drivers and teams as the IndyCar Series heads to Gateway International Raceway this weekend. In fact, the winners of the last three Gateway races will be in the Toyota camp this weekend.

A year ago, Marlboro Team Penske teammates Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves swept the top two spots, with de Ferran winning from the pole. Two years ago, Al Unser Jr. was victorious on the 1.25-mile oval, moving through the field from eighth position. In 2000, it was the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team that registered the CART Champ Car win with Juan Montoya, who at one point lapped the entire field, winning from the pole in his Target Toyota. In addition, A.J. Foyt IV (Conseco Toyota) won Gateway's inaugural Infiniti Pro Series event last season.


Three Toyota drivers are currently separated by just 22 points at the top of the IndyCar Series Driver's Championship race. Scott Dixon heads into Gateway with the series points lead by the slimmest of margins. The 23-year-old Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver is just two points in front of Tony Kanaan, three points ahead of Marlboro Team Penske's Gil de Ferran, and only 22 points ahead of Penske's Helio Castroneves after 10 of 16 races this season.

Seven Toyota drivers currently rank in the top 10. Kelley Racing teammates Al Unser Jr. and Scott Sharp are seventh and eighth, respectively, while Tomas Scheckter (Target Toyota) and Tora Takagi (Pioneer Toyota) round out the top 10 in ninth and 10th place.


Jim Aust, Toyota vice president of motorsports:

"We're just going to keep focused on trying to win races and if we can do that, we'll wrap up the first IndyCar Series Manufacturer's Championship for Toyota and put our drivers in a great position for a title. This stretch of three races in the next three weeks will go a long way in deciding the championship."


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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Al Unser Jr. , Scott Sharp , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , A.J. Foyt IV , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Tora Takagi , Alex Barron , Chip Ganassi , Mo Nunn
Teams Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing , Chip Ganassi Racing