Phoenix, AZ, March 17 - Team Penske is back on top. Not exactly back - they've been back for the past couple of years, as the team to beat in their long-time CART home. But they have a new home in the Indy Racing League. A two-three finish in...
Phoenix, AZ, March 17 - Team Penske is back on top. Not exactly back - they've been back for the past couple of years, as the team to beat in their long-time CART home. But they have a new home in the Indy Racing League. A two-three finish in the Indy Racing opener in Miami served notice. A one-two finish today in the Copper World Indy 200 established, in their new home, their traditional position as the team to beat.
Panther Racing's Sam Hornish kept Team Penske at bay in the early stages, lead more laps than anyone else, but after gearbox problems in the first pit stop did not quite have the edge to beat them. Al Unser Jr., Eddie Cheever, and Eliseo Salazar all took turns leading, but ultimately Team Penske's drivers Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran finished one-two, with Hornish, Salazar and Unser following them across the line.
The day began with the expected drag race between front row Helio Castroneves (pole) and Sam Hornish (outside pole). Helio pulled a small margin over Sam, who was followed by Jeff Ward, Robbie Buhl, Tomas Scheckter and Felipe Giaffone. The field stretched out until the leaders began lapping slower traffic on the seventeenth lap. Hornish and the Pennzoil Panther team have shown a knack for handling, with the ability to run anywhere on the track. Within a half dozen laps of traffic racing, Hornish caught and passed Castroneves. He held the lead for the next 67 laps, until his gearbox let him down. He continued to run strong, threatening for the lead, but never headed the field again.
Eddie Cheever led ten laps under during a series of yellow flag pit stops, then Al Unser Jr. took command. For 39 laps, Al headed a five car freight train of himself, Salazar, de Ferran, Castroneves and Hornish. The five car draft - with Buddy Lazier occasionally making it six - blasted around at 170 mph until traffic interrupted the flow. Unser fell to Salazar, then Salazar fell to Castroneves. The final 55 laps of the race were headed by the red and white Team Penske cars. Gil slipped by Helio in traffic to lead 15 of those laps, but Helio regained the lead for good in a half-lap side-by-side duel on a restart.
Helio worked all race long to achieve his victory. "I did have a very strong car in traffic, but not as good as Sam," Helio said, after descending from his customary fence-climbing celebration. "Gil was very strong as well, especially in Turns 3 and 4 outside. I was just trying to be patient. I knew it would be back and forth. As long as I was in the top five I knew it would be a good position.
"The first pit stop, I tried to go around one car. He didn't know where to go. He really was slowing down. I tried to get a little space. I went too close to the wall. Dust got on my tires. When I braked, I slid really bad. Unfortunately, that cost me some positions. But at the second pit stop, we did some adjustment, and the car was back on rails. That was very good. I tell you, I was having a lot of fun."
Much has been made of the "Panther vs Penske" battle this season. Helio does not view this as a two-horse race, nor as a Penske dominance. He sees his win as much larger than that. "It's not a matter of only beating one guy, but beating a lot of them. Today we saw Robbie Buhl, Al, and my teammate. Everyone was strong. To be honest, finishing in this position, winning a race, gives great satisfaction. It does not matter where: flat track, banked track, ovals. It's amazing how much effort everyone put into the cars and the team. We still have to keep working because it is not over yet."
Team Penske manager Tim Cindric agrees with Helio. "Today proved that you've got to have the whole package to win the race. It's not just the fastest car. We want to beat Sam when he doesn't have a problem. Today he obviously had a problem in the pits, and got himself stuck back there.
"The whole championship program is consistency. That's what we did in the championships we had in the past few years. That's what we're trying to build on now."
Gil was satisfied with his second place finish. He would have liked to win, but lost the edge at his last pit stop. "I came in in front of Helio. Because my first stop was a little long, they had to kind of pull me back a little bit. After that, I was conservative going into my pit box. I came in in front of Helio, and I came out just behind.
"You know, at that point I knew I had a good car. If there's one thing that years of racing has taught me, it's really never over until the last corner. So, at that point, I didn't know either way. I just thought there's 50-odd laps to go here, we're in good shape, car's running well, and we're likely to get a lot of traffic. so let's just see how things work out."
Despite things working out to second place for him, Gil is proud of the results the team has achieved so far. "I think, especially both here and Homestead, that we had quite a bit of opportunity to prepare since most of the winter testing was done here. I was quite familiar with what we had to do here and Homestead. I think the big challenge is going to be when we go to tracks that we didn't run quite that much."
Gil and Helio dedicated their victory to Gary Buckner and his family. "Gary passed away last week," said Gil after the race. "He was a very important guy to me and to the whole team. I wanted to bring a victory for his family because he worked in my crew, but Helio did a fantastic job today. This one is in Gary's honor."
Sam Hornish had the car to beat until that fateful pit stop. "We came in from the pit. Everything went good until we started to leave, stripped off first gear, kind of sat there, pulled into second, didn't really do anything, pulled into third, and then it stalled. Had to restart the motor. I think we went back to eighth place.
"You know, the car handled awesome. We could move it in and out of traffic whenever we wanted to. Lost sixth gear right toward the end. It's one of those days. Everything didn't work out our way. It's what I say all the time: if it's hard to win, we'll do the best we can to try to win. If not, we'll try to do the best to finish up as high as we can."
While Eliseo Salazar's boss, A.J. Foyt, is never happy with less than victory, Eliseo felt he had a good day. "I am happy because we were competitive. We led laps, and we were running with the Penske and Panther teams. We lost the lead because we had a slight problem on our pit stop. When I went to pass Dare, I had to lift a bit, and Hornish got a run on me and got by. But it was fun."
Fifth place runner Al Unser Jr was pleased with today's performance. "The Corteco/Bryant car ran great today. I am super proud of Kelley Racing. I told the guys in Miami that we're only as good as our last race, and that race wasn't very good. Today we finished fifth, so hopefully we'll keep that going.
The race was marred by seven caution periods, four for collisions. The most serious was on Lap 103. Triggered by light wheel-to-wheel contact with another car, Anthony Lazzaro spun in Turn 2 and took Eddie Cheever and Scott Sharp to the wall. All three drivers climbed out of their cars unassisted. Lazzaro complained of back pain, and was transported by ground to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Phoenix. He was admitted for X-rays and overnight observation. All other drivers involved in incidents were checked in the infield medical center and released.
The Indy Racing League moves on to California next week, where the Indy Racing League 400 will be contested on the two mile California Speedway in Fontana on March 24. The race will be televised live on ESPN at 3:30 pm Eastern time.