Indy Japan 300
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A Plethora of Firsts
by Esteban Morales

     After being on the cusp of victory with numerous poles, 2nd places and top 5 results, 2003 Rookie of the Year, Dan Wheldon, finally found his way to victory lane at the conclusion of the Firestone Indy Japan 300. The event began with Wheldon on pole, while owner/driver, Greg Ray, qualified an impressive 2nd; his best performance to date since forming his own team. From the onset of the event, Honda made their intent to win clear as 7 of the top 10 qualifiers were using Honda power. Once the green flag dropped Wheldon stretched his lead into an impressive gap between 1st and 2nd place while Ray soon dropped into 3rd behind Andretti Green Racing’s Tony Kanaan. By the 10th lap of the race the Japanese manufacturer kept showing its muscle as all cars running in the top five were Honda powered.

     As the race progressed, Wheldon continued to dominate fiercely and only briefly gave up his lead during the first round of green flag pit stops which began with Ed Carpenter on lap 36. Ray was forced to make numerous stops following light contact with Team Rahal’s Buddy Rice. While Ray’s run was brought to an end as he fell several laps behind the leaders, Rice continued seemingly unharmed. Meanwhile, Japanese rookie, Kosuke Matsuura kept his home crowd on its feet as he continued to run in 4th after starting in the same position.

     Lap 78 saw the first caution flag brought out for debris and also allowed the field to make their second round of pit stops. Wheldon led the field in and out of the pits; Kanaan had a slow stop but managed to keep it together in 2nd place while Matsuura tumbled to 8th. When the green flag was waved Wheldon continued to lead over Kanaan, Rice, Darren Manning and Mark Taylor. Following this Matsuura had another moment as he made contact with former two-time champion, Sam Hornish. Matsuura’s car was not damaged in the incident; Hornish however, made hard contact with a wall and was out of the race, this was his second DNF of the season after winning the opener in Miami.

     Once the caution period came to a close Wheldon continued to dominate until about half way through the event when teammate, Tony Kanaan, began to pressure the leader. When asked about the possibility of team orders, team owner Michael Andretti coolly answered, “They’re two smart guys…they’re not going to do anything stupid.” The two continued to be the class of the field with Wheldon dominating in veteran-like fashion. By about lap 130 the 3rd round of pit stops began to unfold with little if any shuffling taking place as Wheldon held on to his lead. Following the stops, veteran Adrian Fernandez continued his abysmal debut season in the IRL when his Honda powered G-Force fell victim to transmission woes for a second time this season. The last yellow of the day came as a result of rookie Mark Taylor making contact with an outside retaining wall in turn 2 while running in 7th; throughout a great portion of the race Taylor had been the highest running Chevrolet powered car.

     Along with the caution came the last pit stops of day as well; Wheldon again kept his lead while Helio Castroneves elected to pit solely for fuel and was propelled to 2nd right behind the leader. On lap 178 Wheldon led the field to a frenetic start during which Kanaan easily moved around Castroneves. Wheldon steadily remained in the lead while his Andretti Green Racing teammate, Bryan Herta, experienced mechanical maladies. Wheldon cruised through the last 20 laps of the race to record his first IRL victory, the series’ first victory by an Englishman, Honda’s first win at Motegi and Honda’s first set of back to back wins in the IRL.

Results:

1. Dan Wheldon
2. Tony Kanaan
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Darren Manning
5. Scott Dixon
6. Buddy Rice
7. Dario Franchitti
8. Kosuke Matsuura
9. Scott Sharp
10. Tora Takagi
11. Roger Yasukawa
12. Alex Barron
13. Tomas Scheckter
14. Bryan Herta
15. A.J. Foyt IV
16. Mark Taylor
17. Vitor Meira
18. Adrian Fernandez
19. Sam Hornish Jr.
20. Greg Ray
21. Robbie Buhl
22. Ed Carpenter