Kansas Indy 300
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All-American 4th of July
by Esteban Morales

     The smoke hardly cleared from the Indy Racing League’s visit to Richmond International Raceway when 22-year veteran, Al Unser Jr., announced his retirement from open wheel competition. As a legendary career came to a close a new opportunity was opened; there was now a vacant seat at Patrick Racing that saw Indy standout Jeff Simmons receive a full time ride for the rest of the season. A similar scenario took place at the Panther Racing camp when that team parted with rookie Mark Taylor and gave Townsend Bell, former Champcar star, a new lease on his racing career.

     Coming off a strong showing at Richmond, Rahal Letterman Racing was once again on form with Buddy Rice taking pole and Vitor Meira qualifying 3rd for the Argent Mortgage Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway. Rice led Tony Kanaan, Vitor Meira, Sam Hornish Jr., and Tomas Scheckter to the drop of the green. The green, however, was immediately followed by the yellow, the first of only two, after Scott Sharp lost control of the No. 8 Delphi/Dallara/Toyota/Firestone and collected Tora Takagi in the process. Dario Franchitti, who had started last due to an engine change, took this opportunity to visit the pits along with rookies Darren Manning and Jeff Simmons. Following the opening-lap shunt the race would not see another yellow flag for over 160 laps.

     When the green flag dropped for a second time on lap 7 it gave way to a very quick pace leading to race speeds promptly eclipsing qualifying times. Tony Kanaan immediately dove for the lead on the restart and drove right around the pole sitter through turns 1 and 2. During the opening laps the top 5 shuffled with Rice, Meira and Scheckter all doing battle. Japanese rookie, Kosuke Matsuura, began to turn in another impressive run as he kept his car in the top 6 within the first quarter of the race. By the 40th lap the top 4 began putting on an exciting display as they all battled wheel to wheel; through the midst of this Tony Kanaan was still able to keep his nose upfront among the lead pack. Just before the first sequence of green flag pit stops began, Townsend Bell pulled his car in numerous times after his extinguishing system decided to detonate. Once the stops ensued most came in and out cleanly with the exception of Richmond winner, Dan Wheldon; while exiting his pit stall, Wheldon pulled the entire fuel tank with him resulting in an extended stop. When the field cycled through its stops Kanaan emerged in the lead followed by Vitor Meira, Bryan Herta, Tomas Scheckter and Adrian Fernandez. By lap 64 Meira reeled in Kanaan and began pressing him for the lead of the race. The two went side by side for a number of laps until Meira finally took the lead on lap 75. Meira began to smoothly thread through traffic after taking the lead, the Rahal Letterman Racing crew undoubtedly began to rattle the Andretti Green Racing juggernaut as Meira and Rice led 1-2 midway through the event.

     Meira ultimately had to pit on lap 108 under green flag conditions but stalled his car and was beaten out by Kanaan. One lap later Scheckter limped into the pits after running out of fuel. Following the stops, Kanaan had again regained the lead for a few laps until Rice flew by the points leader on lap 123. With a quarter distance left to run the top 5 were led by Rice followed by Kanaan, Meira, Fernandez and Herta. Rice led them back into the pits for a final time that afternoon and with a clean stop emerged in the lead closely followed by teammate, Vitor Meira.

     The long green flag run was brought to a halt on lap 175 when Kosuke Matsuura and Jeff Simmons touched wheels and smacked turn 1 while being lapped by 4th place Adrian Fernandez. The green flag flew with 15 to go and with no team orders at hand, Bobby Rahal opened the door for a thrilling duel to the checkered flags. Meira immediately tried the outside line and stayed alongside Rice as the two exchanged the lead for the last few laps. Rice went on to cap off a perfect 4th of July weekend with an American win in front of team and race sponsor, Argent Mortgage. About the only thing that went wrong was not setting a new record for the Indy Racing League’s closest finish, he and Vitor had to settle for 2nd with a margin of victory of only .0051 of a second.

Results:

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