Racing under the lights in Richmond a highlight for many drivers

It's hard to imagine that the IndyCar Series could race at a shorter oval than last weekend's venue -- 0.875-mile Iowa Speedway. But Saturday night the IndyCars visit the track that served as a model for the comparatively supersized Iowa oval.

Richmond International Raceway, site of the Sun Trust Indy Challenge (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), is just three-quarters of a mile long. That means the IndyCars are getting around every 16 seconds or so, even in race trim.

It's enough to make you dizzy. And that's the biggest factor the 19 IndyCar Series drivers will face -- the sheer physical forces produced by pounding around a tight bullring 250 times in the course of an hour and a half.

"At first Richmond was a bit daunting and the g-forces take some getting used to when you are getting up to speed," said Marco Andretti, who had one of the best races of his rookie IndyCar season there last year, finishing fourth. "Now I can't wait to get back there. It's a driver's track and I love every bit of it."

That's a common refrain from the IndyCar Series drivers. Richmond is the closest that oval racing comes to replicating road racing, and it requires a completely different technique than a 1.5-mile speedway.

In terms of car setup, Richmond demands as much downforce as possible and in qualifying, it's almost possible to get around flat out.

We've built some strong momentum with the Patron Rahal-Letterman Team and I'm fired up to take that into Richmond. It doesn't get any more exciting than racing IndyCars under the lights at Richmond.

Scott Sharp

Thanks to chassis and engine developments, the Richmond pole speed jumped from 160 mph in 2001 to the mark of 176.244 mph set by Sam Hornish Jr. in 2005. That translates into a 15.3-second lap.

Hornish is the IndyCar Series' only two-time winner at RIR (2002 and '06), and he and Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves head into the race weekend as the probable favorites.

"When we were running with Toyota in 2004 and '05, we didn't feel like we had enough power on some of the bigger tracks so we focused on the shorter tracks," Hornish explained. "We knew we had a better chance of winning because it was more about the handling of the car and the driver. That obviously carried over into last year."

IndyCar Series championship leader Dario Franchitti led laps at Richmond in 2004 and '05 and finished on the podium the last two years, including third to Hornish in 2006. The Scotsman hopes a similar result this weekend helps extend his 51-point championship lead.

Three of the last six IndyCar Series champions won the Richmond round, including Hornish last year. In fact, the last six series champions finished in the top five at Richmond.

"I really enjoy racing at Richmond and we've had a couple of really good runs there the past two years, so hopefully we can keep the Canadian Club car up front with the leaders and challenge for another win," Franchitti said.

Andretti Green Racing has scored one win at Richmond in the hands of Dan Wheldon in 2004. Wheldon started that race 20th, proving that canny pit strategy and a solid race setup can overcome a poor qualifying performance.

Wheldon now drives for Target/Ganassi Racing, which has struggled at times in the last couple of years on short ovals. Scott Dixon led every lap in winning the 2003 IndyCar race at Richmond, but the New Zealander qualified and finished 11th there last year, two places behind Wheldon.

Dixon claimed pole position last week at Iowa, though his race was ruined by a failure in his car's steering.

"It was good to be on the pace in Iowa because the short ovals haven't been our strongest suit," Dixon said.

Rahal Letterman Racing has also found the bullrings difficult in recent years but Scott Sharp and Jeff Simmons ran competitively at Iowa, with Sharp qualifying fourth and finishing third.

A win on Saturday for Sharp would boost him over the $10 million career earnings mark.

"We've built some strong momentum with the Patron Rahal-Letterman Team and I'm fired up to take that into Richmond," Sharp said. "It doesn't get any more exciting than racing IndyCars under the lights at Richmond."

Other story lines
Vitor Meira's quest for victory. The Brazilian finished second at RIR in 2006, but has gone 67 starts without a win -- the longest streak in the IndyCar Series.
… Danica vs. Sarah vs. Milka. Now that she is with Andretti Green Racing, Danica Patrick is knocking on the door of the top five almost every weekend. With the arrival of Milka Duno, Sarah Fisher has been almost forgotten, but she's a much faster and more consistent racer than the Venezuelan.
… The championship chase. Franchitti has a healthy 51-point lead over his teammate Tony Kanaan in the series standings. But four other drivers -- Dixon, Wheldon, Hornish and Castroneves -- are within 80 points of the Scotsman and cannot be counted out of contention. A dominant win by any of the challengers coupled with a Franchitti DNF could create a 40-point swing.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.