Kansas Lottery Indy 300
Happy 27th Sam
by Esteban Morales
July 2 , 2006
Coming off a series of ill-fated runs that began at Indy, Helio Castroneves was hoping to capitalize at the Kansas Lottery Indy 300 by adding to his tally in the season standings. Instead, Castroneves left the track second in points with a wounded racecar. Following a convincing win in Richmond Sam Hornish Jr. showed his intent to take over the championship lead by qualifying on the front row behind Dan Wheldon but ahead of Scott Dixon and Castroneves. Though Marlboro Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing dominated qualifying, as they have much of the season, Andretti Green Racing was nowhere to be found with the fastest of the bunch, Marco Andretti, qualifying a lowly 11th .
With the drop of the green Hornish did not hesitate to take the lead; Roger Penske's driver hounded Wheldon before moving to the front on lap 8 while Castroneves slipped back to fourth. Ten laps later Hornish began to amass a considerable lead as Wheldon and teammate Dixon fought for second. In the midst of the battle Castroneves's Dallara broke loose and lightly tagged the turn 4 SAFER Barrier on lap 38. Through some creative pit work that saw the Brazilian almost run over a crewman Castroneves was able to stay on the lead lap and attach a new rear wing. At the head of the field not everything was going smoothly for Hornish either; though he led the TCGR cars into the pits, he lost the lead to Dixon upon exit and had to force his way back into the lead right after the lap 46 restart.
Hornish continued to lead as Castroneves began to claw his way back to the front; by lap 70 Castroneves had broken into the top ten of the field while Hornish led by about one second. Though the TCGR cars were unable to catch Hornish they were helped by a lap 91 caution for debris. During pit stops Dixon rocketed out of the pits with a fast stop but was unable to pass Hornish and Wheldon. As the race restarted at the halfway mark Wheldon attempted Hornish's signature maneuver on the outside of turn 1 but slid into Dixon 's clutches.
While the race at the front began to settle down behind the top three the event was anything but calm with Vitor Meira, Tomas Scheckter, Kosuke Matsuura, Tony Kanaan, Andretti and Castroneves all vying for best of the rest honors up until scheduled green flag pit stops. Hornish was able to fend off Wheldon just before he made his way into the pits but gave up the lead once the stops cycled through. Wheldon's crew made up for earlier blunders throughout the season by sending Wheldon out ahead of Hornish, Dixon , Kanaan and Castroneves, respectively. Just before a penultimate lap 168 yellow flag for Scott Sharp making contact in turns 3 and 4, Castroneves moved up to fourth and the top four ran in qualifying order: a telling sign of how close the Penske and TCGR teams are performing this season.
The field prematurely went back to green on lap 176 and was slowed one lap later as Buddy Rice had an almost identical accident that saw him also back into turns 3 and 4. One lap before the green flew for the final time Castroneves's crew decided to bring him into the pits for tires and some minor adjustments; Castroneves fell to the tail end of the lead lap and made little progress by the end of the event. With less than twenty laps remaining Wheldon led Hornish and Dixon to the restart knowing his Penske rival would take any opportunity he could find. Hornish found that opportunity on the outside of the first two turns and promptly took the lead on the backstretch. With only five to go Hornish and Wheldon fought with only inches to spare. Hornish held onto the inside line and took the checkered flags one car length ahead of Wheldon. The winner was more than happy to celebrate his 27 th birthday as the new championship leader ahead of luckless Castroneves and Wheldon.