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Surprise Michael!
by Esteban Morales

     The Indy Racing League has dramatically tried to slow its cars this season through aerodynamic and mechanical alterations. Helio Castroneves however, was not about to let a few tweaks slow him down as he opened the weekend for the Sun Trust Indy Challenge by demolishing the former track record(168.705 mph) with a lap of over 171 miles per hour at the Richmond International Raceway.

     As the sun began to set and the lights began to shine, Castroneves led the 22 car field to the green flag on the .75 mile bullring. Buddy Rice immediately challenged the pole sitter on the opening lap but was relegated to his second starting position. Meanwhile, points leader Tony Kanaan began slicing through traffic after starting mid pack until the 11th lap when the first yellow of the night waved after rookie Kosuke Matsuura made contact with Alex Barron sending Barron into the wall in turn 2. Matsuura was later given a stop and go penalty for his aggressive driving.

     Castroneves led Buddy Rice, Sam Hornish Jr., Tony Kanaan and Tomas Scheckter back to the green flag on lap 23. One lap later Hornish drove around Rice to take second place and make it a Penske 1-2; at this stage in the race it appeared Marlboro Team Penske was back to old form. Soon enough the 1-2 display became reminiscent of the Homestead opener as Hornish chopped Castroneves’ lead and ultimately took command of the race on lap 38. While Hornish led over Castroneves, the second yellow flag waved on lap 67 for debris in turn 3. Hornish led Castroneves, Scheckter, Kanaan and Rice in and out of the pits in the same order.

     Lap 78 saw the field go green and the leaders break away from the rest of the pack. While the Penske teammates continued to fight for the lead, rookie Darren Manning was in familiar form taking spectacular risks and making contact with Adrian Fernandez and Bryan Herta on at least one occasion; this led to the second consecutive caution for debris. The leaders took advantage of the caution and pitted while Dario Franchitti and rookie Ed Carpenter gambled on pit strategy and stayed out on the track. While the field droned around the .75 mile track, the clouds emerged along with some light drizzle further delaying the green flag until lap 131. One lap later the yellow flew once again after Darren Manning lost control upon exiting turn 4. Franchitti was followed by Castroneves, Scheckter, Hornish and Fernandez to the green on lap 140. 20 laps later Franchitti continued to pull away from Castroneves while Hornish moved into third behind his teammate. The ensuing laps saw Hornish and Scheckter feverishly duel for third ending in another caution after Hornish spun in the back stretch; Hornish lost 4 laps and was essentially out of contention continuing his frustrating season.

     Franchitti finally pitted for fuel followed by the rest of the leaders during the caution. Dan Wheldon who had started 20th and had even been lapped at one stage in the race now found himself leading the race largely due to pit strategy. Wheldon led Vitor Meira, Rice, Castroneves, and Franchitti as the green flag was unfurled. Wheldon convincingly held on to the lead despite stretching his fuel load until the penultimate caution fell after Franchitti and rookie Mark Taylor made contact exiting turn 2. Panther Racing not only lost Taylor’s car but also lost Scheckter’s Dallara on the same lap after he tried to avoid the mangled wreckage and collided with Fernandez.

photo: Haber

     When the track went green with 17 laps to go the race began to shape up into a Saturday night short track dash. Wheldon held on to win notwithstanding a very late caution involving Carpenter and Greg Ray leading to a one lap shoot out. The win marked Wheldon’s second career IndyCar victory and Andretti Green Racing’s fourth win this season. When asked about the victory, team owner Michael Andretti confessed to the win coming as “a bit of a surprise….” When asked about his less than stellar donuts on the front straight, Wheldon with an ear to ear grin, admitted he “didn’t know how to do the donuts!” AGR’s Tony Kanaan continues to lead the championship with his top five finish.

Results:

1. Dan Wheldon
2. Vitor Meira
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Bryan Herta
5. Tony Kanaan
6. Buddy Rice
7. Adrian Fernandez
8. Scott Dixon
9. Scott Sharp
10. Felipe Giaffone
11. A.J. Foyt IV
12. Dario Franchitti
13. Sam Hornish Jr.
14. Kosuke Matsuura
15. Greg Ray
16. Ed Carpenter
17. Tomas Scheckter
18. Mark Taylor