Tuesday, September 10, 2002
Castroneves, Unser Jr. honored
By Jack Arute
The closest finish in IRL history was just one of the stories at the Indy Racing League's Delphi Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway. A number of drivers put in stellar performances and earned the race's Four Stars.
Helio Castroneves and his Team Penske outfit spent much of the day passing cars and advancing positions in Joliet, Ill. In qualifying, Castroneves tied down a career-worst 21st spot on the grid.
"Our focus today was working on the race set-up," Castroneves said after his qualifying run. "During both practice sessions, we did full-tank runs and tried to run with other cars to see how the Marlboro Team Penske car handled in traffic."
The strategy worked. On race day, Castroneves used quick stops and the draft to work his way to the front pack by the end of the first third of the race. Because he was the points leader going into the race, his team had the last pit box before the pit exit and used it on several occasions to get out ahead of eventual winner Sam Hornish Jr.
Castroneves said before the race that he would take as many chances as permissible to get the win and did just that. In the end, he finished fourth -- just inches from new points leader Hornish.
"The car was handling really well in traffic, and I was flat out, but we just didn't have what it took to win. The key thing is that we are still in the championship hunt going into the last race at Texas," Castroneves said.
Al Unser Jr.
When Al Unser Jr. edged Scott Goodyear by .043 seconds in the 1992 Indianapolis 500, it was the closest margin in Indy history. In June, the Texas Motor Speedway finish eclipsed that mark and Unser was involved again -- except this time he finished second to Jeff Ward. Now Unser gets his name on the closest margin in history again by finishing second to Hornish.
"We just came up short again. I honestly thought that we won the race. I thought I had him. It was that close," Unser said. "We had been timing it with the earlier laps; if I let him get a little bit ahead of me, going down the back stretch, then my slingshot comes by the front straightaway, I would lead the lap, and I made that happen on the last lap. And quite honestly, I think it was the fact that we pinched it a little too much getting into (Turn) 3, that could have been the difference."
Considering Unser's season, this was a big moral booster and sets he and his Kelley Racing operation up for a chance to win at Texas.
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This star goes to both Vitor Meira and his Team Menard crew. This has been a miserable season for John Menard's Chevy, with injuries keeping them from fulfilling their preseason promise. Meira's arrival has turned that around.
The car qualified fifth and stayed toward the front throughout the day.
"Our pit stops were very good again," said the rookie from Brazil. "I was a little bit worried about myself in the pit stops just trying to hit my marks, but that worked out well, and again our guys did such a good job. When there were 40 laps to go, I knew that was the moment everyone was waiting for, and it was time to race.
"On the track like that, when there are 10 cars in the same pack, you have to make the right moves. It's all about decisions, running in traffic. It's crazy. You have to know what's going to happen before you make the move, and I have to learn that."
When the Panther Racing team was running to greet Hornish after his win, they stopped on pit road to applaud their rookie driver. It was a fitting testament to his performance.
Wheldon understands his role on the team and stayed at the ready, qualifying seventh and running well through the first half of the race. His car lost some of its muscle after it clipped Robbie Buhl on lap 112, but the Englishman who has earned the nickname "Duke" from his crew finished 10th.
"It's not what I would have liked, but it was a complete learning experience," he said afterward. "I actually think we would have been a little better off had I not clipped the back of Robbie Buhl. From that moment on, I could never get the balance to how I wanted it.
"The Pennzoil Panther team did a fantastic job. The Chevrolet engines were really good when I needed them. We'll just use that experience to our benefit at Texas."