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Championship went down to the wire
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online

If Oliver Stone had written the script, Hollywood would have laughed.

Here was a 23-year-old who captured his first IRL championship facing the arrival of one of racing's best-prepared and richest operations. He was a one-car team about to defend its honor against a two-car outfit that has won more Indy Car races, more Indy Car championships and more Indy 500s than any other in history.

When Roger Penske announced his IRL intentions last winter, many automatically gave him this year's IRL title. The only problem was that they forgot to tell Sam Hornish Jr. and the Pennzoil Panther pack.

Sam Hornish Jr. takes a victory lap after winning the IRL championship and the Chevy 500.
Right from the start, you just knew that the season would be a heavyweight fight between Hornish and Penske's two fighters, Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves.

"We had three really tough races at the beginning of the year," said Hornish after locking up his second points title in a row on Sunday. "I keep going back to this, but if the driver hadn't screwed up in three races, we would have had a little better of a season. We wouldn't have been going right down to the end here and having to win, having to win two races in a row to take the championship."

Hornish's run is exactly what the IRL wants. But then again so was the performance of his rival Castroneves.

The exuberant young Brazilian won the hearts of many with his smile, his "live life to the fullest" demeanor and his incredible drive in the cockpit of his Marlboro Team Penske mount.

His move to the IRL was out of his control, but the end result was.

"Oh, definitely. I had no input on Roger's decision. I was hired for him to do three years racing for Marlboro Team Penske," Castronoves said. "You have to give the credit for Roger. You know, he saw the light at the end of the tunnel. He made the move t the right time, I believe. I felt a major improvement in the series, you know, this year. I'm able to say that.

"Last year, I was racing Phoenix, Indianapolis and I saw the series. I said, 'I guess they will improve.' This year, you saw how many people were out there. And, yes, I would have to give credit for his decision, credit for Tony George and Brian (Barnhart) to make everything happen. I do believe from now on, we just go higher and higher. The sky's the limit."

But this IRL season will be remembered for more than just the championship battle. It will be remembered for the level of competition, the number of different winners and, of course, the close finishes.

While CART struggled with a parity package that hindered on-track passing -- no passes for the lead in 15 events run so far -- the IRL saw 25 different drivers swap the lead under green more than 50 times in its 15 races.

Twelve of the starters in the season finale at TMS were aged 30 or younger. The last two races were the two closest in Indy Racing history and the Delphi Indy 300 at Chicagoland is the closest 1-2 finish in all of auto racing's recorded annals.

Crowds continued to grow as the word spread that something special was happening, the biggest growth coming from NASCAR Winston Cup fans who sampled the IRL product and liked it.

But the best endorsement for the IRL came when Dale Earnhardt Jr. courted Hornish offering the Defiance, Ohio, native a ride in one of his company's Busch cars for the 2003 season.

"Dale told me that I had to make up my mind whether I wanted to be an Indy Car driver or a stock car driver," explained Hornish. "I'm young and have a lot of years left. I guess for now I'm an Indy Car driver."

And a damn good one at that.

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video
 Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr. joins ABC's Jack Arute following the victory.
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Sam Hornish Jr.'s .0096 second victory over Helio Castroneves ranks as the second closest in IRL history.
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 The victory slips away, but Helio Castroneves is thankful for a second-place finish in the overall points championship.
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 Team owner John Barnes celebrates winning the 2002 IRL Championship.
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1