Thursday, August 14, 2003
Top-four showdown in the works
By Robin Miller Special to ESPN.com
SPARTA, Ky. -- Toyota has won nine of 11 starts this season in the Indy Racing League, yet a Honda driver is leading the championship race. Scott Dixon owns the most wins (three) but is fourth in the standings. Tomas Scheckter has led more than 300 laps without making it to victory lane. And four drivers are within 24 points of each other with five races remaining.
That's the wacky but interesting landscape as the Indy cars unload at Kentucky Speedway this weekend.
"This championship thing is getting complicated and it's crazy," said Tony Kanaan, whose consistency has him atop the IRL standings despite owning only one of Honda's two wins in 2003. "Things are getting so tight. Every race is getting that way and is so competitive.
"We're going to do our best and see what happens."
Kanaan leads fellow Brazilians Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves by seven and 10 points, respectively, with Dixon 24 out of the top spot.
Statistically, Dixon is dominating in Chip Ganassi's G-Force/Toyota with 625 laps led, four poles and three wins but four DNFs have proved costly.
"It's a four-way battle and these next couple races are going to go a long way towards deciding the championship," said Dixon, who held an eight-second lead last Sunday at Madison, Ill., before his gearbox seized.
"St. Louis was disappointing because we had a dominant car out there and probably should have won that race. But Team Target has won a lot of championships and they know how to win."
Despite missing one race while recovering from injuries, Indy 500 winner de Ferran is right in the hunt and believes Team Penske has a handle on the 1½-mile tracks like Kentucky, Texas and Chicago (three of the last five races).
Points leader Tony Kanaan is gearing up for a stretch run that he knows is a four-man battle.
"Our performance on 1.5-mile ovals has improved and we had a good test at Kentucky last week," said the two-time CART champion. "We didn't have very good cars at Texas in June but we've worked hard to get a handle on them and I think we should be in good shape for the stretch run.
"This is fun. This is what it's all about."
Teammate Castroneves finally broke into the win column at Gateway and he's hoping for a little momentum.
"Getting that first win was really good for our motivation and we're right in the middle of this fight," said the two-time Indy winner who finished second to champ Sam Hornish Jr. by 20 points last year.
Hornish, winless so far in 2003, will have the new Chevy/Cosworth motor behind him again after using the old Gen III version last weekend.
"We think we've got a good shot at winning races again," said the 23-year-old native of Ohio, who nearly captured Michigan in the Chevy/Cosworth's debut last month. "We're looking forward to going to a track we like, and where we've done well the past couple of years.
"We still think we have a shot at the championship."
For the first time since the IRL allowed General Motors to bring in a new powerplant, all the Chevrolet competitors will sport the Gen IV engine. Sarah Fisher, Robbie Buhl, Buddy Lazier and Vitor Meira will get the engine that's already been raced once by Buddy Rice and Hornish.
Defending race winner Felipe Giaffone is still healing from injuries suffered last month at Kansas City but 2002 pole-sitter Fisher is juiced about finally getting some horsepower.
"This is the weekend Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has been waiting for," said Fisher, whose only highlight so far this season was qualifying second at Richmond, Va. "I'm excited about the new Chevy engine and so is my crew.
"Kentucky was a big weekend last year and we have some big shoes to fill there."
It will only be a two-day event, with practice and qualifying Saturday.
Robin Miller covers open-wheel racing for ESPN and ESPN.com.