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Points chase heats up in Kentucky
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online

The Indy Racing League moves to the Kentucky Speedway this Sunday (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET) with a tight points battle, the expected return of one of its stars and a new fan.

Despite preseason predictions that Marlboro Team Penske's switch to the IRL would result in domination by the Reading, Pa., super team, the IRL has seen eight different drivers pull into the winner's circle over the past eight events. Five were first-time winners, and the average margin of victory for the entire season is a little over eight-tenths of one second.

Sam Hornish Jr.
Defending series champion Sam Hornish Jr. heads to Kentucky in third place.
The numerous winners have shuffled the season-long point race. Gil de Ferran has a 12-point edge over teammate Helio Castroneves and an 18-point cushion on Sam Hornish Jr. Felipe Giaffone is fourth, while Alex Barron has charged into the fifth spot.

"We lost a bit after the Michigan race. We did not lose a position but lost valuable championship points on the drivers and teams ahead of us," remarked Barron, who won in Nashville three weeks ago. "There are four races left, and we need to make a big impact for our team to continue in the points chase for this year and the development going into the 2003 season."

Sandwiched between Barron and Hornish is the only driver in the top 5 who remains winless: Giaffone.

"I haven't been there since last year, and it's a new track for the team, as well," he said. "But I hear the track is a lot smoother than last year when I struggled all weekend with my old team."

Giaffone and his new team, Mo Nunn/Hollywood Racing, has pasted together solid performances -- seven top 5s over the last eight races, including a third at Michigan.

"At least we beat the guys we're racing for in the points and gained some ground there. Hopefully we'll have some good results in the last few races, and we'll be in position for the championship."

Kentucky's 1.5-mile layout makes it an exciting playground for the Indy Cars. Fourteen-degree banks mean less "Texas-style" side-by-side, row-by-row action, but fans will see a brand of competition that has made the IRL a growing fan favorite.

"Kentucky is more universal all around with the resurfacing, and it feels like a bullring compared to running at Michigan last weekend, which is great for me since that is what I grew up on," explained Sarah Fisher, who wowed Michigan's crowd with her late-race run to the front. She finished third at the bluegrass plant two years ago.

"Hopefully we will be able to finish this race two spots higher than we did two years ago."

Kentucky should also see the return of Al Unser Jr. The two-time Indy 500 winner should complete his 17-day rehab in time for the start of practice and qualifying. That also means that yet another team will expand to a three-car effort.

Kelley Racing is expected to field a third car for Tony Renna, who drove Unser's Corteco/Bryant car to a fourth-place finish in only his second Indy Car start. Kelley joins A.J. Foyt Enterprises as three-car efforts for the remainder of the season.

The question mark that remains unanswered is Buddy Rice's plans. Rice was the third Red Bull Cheever entry at Michigan, where he drove to a second place behind teammate Tomas Scheckter.

"At Michigan we finally had a near perfect weekend that allowed every employee of Red Bull Cheever Racing and TWR Engines to celebrate," said Red Bull owner Eddie Cheever Jr. "But one victory is not near enough. We intend to do everything possible to win every one of these races. We are working on our game plan for Kentucky, and will announce it later this week."

The Belterra Resorts 300 also sees a new fan in the fold. NASCAR TV analyst and former two-time Winston Cup champion, Darrell Waltrip.

"Folks, I love NASCAR. I love stock cars. Stock car drivers are my heroes. But I've got to tell you, I've watched several IRL races over the last year or so, and those guys and gal -- Sarah Fisher -- put on a whale of a show," wrote D.W. on his web site.

"I was so impressed. But I guess the reason that I was so excited is they're coming to my track, the Kentucky Speedway, on the weekend of August 10. If they can three-wide anywhere, they'll be able to run four-wide at Kentucky, so I'm looking forward to that race."

Jack Arute writes a column every Monday for ABC Sports Online.

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IRL dealing with its perceptions

Persistence finally paying off for Barron

Arute: Fisher gaining respect

Miller: Team Cheever is Team Turmoil

Scheckter wins Michigan Indy 400


video
 Tomas Scheckter takes the lead and holds on for his first IRL win.
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Buddy Rice's IRL debut ends with a second place finish for Red Bull Cheever Racing.
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Tomas Scheckter joins ABC's Jack Arute following the win.
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Eddie Cheever challenged his drivers and got a 1-2 finish at MIS.
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1