Firestone Indy 200
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Nashville Bows Down to Kanaan
by Esteban Morales

      Although the Indy Racing League is only midway through its ninth season, it seems silly-season has been in full swing from the onset of the year with the arrival of new teams and rampant driver shuffling. Following Little Al’s retirement, Jeff Simmons filled the vacant Patrick Racing seat; just two weeks later he was replaced by veteran Jaques Lazier for the Firestone Indy 200 at Nashville Superspeedway. Along the same lines, rookie Mark Taylor, who had been dismissed by Panther Racing found a new opportunity at Access Motorsports when team owner, Greg Ray, decided to step down from driver duties and focus on managing the team. Silly-season, however, does not seem to bother America’s newfound poster boy one bit as Buddy Rice went on to record his fourth pole of the year in his bid to catch Tony Kanaan in the title chase.

     Once the grid took flight for the final night race of the season, Rice’s teammate and outside pole-sitter, Vitor Meira, plunged into the lead through turn 3. Rice continued falling backwards losing 2nd to Dan Wheldon on the following lap. Just after the 10th lap of competition a yellow flag brought the field to a crawl; Scott Sharp and Mark Taylor took this opportunity to pit. Meira led Wheldon, Rice, Kanaan and Sam Hornish Jr. back to the restart on lap 13. Rice then took advantage of the field’s close proximity and pounced on Wheldon making it a Rahal-Letterman Racing 1-2. Meira continued to lead convincingly and even began to pull away from his teammate until another yellow thrown for debris thwarted his plan. Meira led the leaders in and out of the pits keeping command of the event through the restart on lap 43.

     Rice, Kanaan, Hornish, and Wheldon continued hounding the leader a quarter distance through the evening up until Red Bull Cheever Racing driver, Ed Carpenter, smacked the turn 4 wall; this was Carpenter’s 5th DNF of the season and rumors of a possible replacement for the rookie have been circulating for some time. The second pit stops of the event ensued and ended with Meira now leading over Rice, Adrian Fernandez, Kanaan and Wheldon. The stops also saw the retirements of Dario Franchitti with transmission woes and Jaques Lazier with a broken axle. The green flag briefly flew on lap 73 but was halted until the following lap when all cars were in satisfactory position. Once the field was rolling at full speed, Meira came under serious attack from Rice but was able to hold him off once again. The teammates began to pull away from the field; halfway through the night, Meira had opened up a lead of over 3 seconds. While Meira began lapping traffic plenty of drivers came under heavy pressure including Tomas Scheckter, who moved out of the racing groove, got too high and made contact in turn 2 on lap 109.

     The caution led to the penultimate pit stops of the night. Meira again led the field into pit road but did not lead them out after stalling his Panoz G-Force upon exit! Apparently, the vent hose was still connected to his car when he was queued to leave his stall; a similar incident involving Dan Wheldon was seen at Kansas Speedway two weeks before. Meira was then forced to come in a second time to tighten a few loose wheels. Buddy Rice, who was unable to challenge his teammate was now handed the lead; he led Wheldon, Hornish, Bryan Herta, and Townsend Bell back to the green flag on lap 120. While Rice was in the lead, Meira was busy carving his way back to the front passing as many as five cars in a single lap. By lap 140 Meira was up to 7th, a few laps later he broke into the top 5 after passing Bell in turn 1.

      When Bryan Herta made contact exiting turn 2 and brought out the fifth caution it seemed Meira was within striking distance of the leaders. Unfortunately he suffered another long stop relegating him to the tail-end of the field. While the leaders decided to pit, Wheldon and his Andretti Green Racing crew opted to take a riskier strategy and stay out. The risk did not lie in fuel consumption as is typically the case but in tire wear; after all, his Firestones had already endured an entire stint on the abrasive track surface and were expected to hold up under another. With 24 laps left to run, Wheldon brought the field to the green with Buddy Rice in hot pursuit. The two were immediately wheel to wheel until they made serious contact leaving Rice with a broken front wing and Wheldon unscathed; the incident brought out a brief caution. With under 20 laps to go, Wheldon again led the field only to have his rear right tire shred on lap 184 bringing out the last yellow of the night. Andretti Green Racing teammate and points leader, Tony Kanaan, now unexpectedly found himself leading with only a dozen laps left to run.

     When the green flag fell for the final time Helio Castroneves snatched 3rd place from Darren Manning. With Sam Hornish Jr. running in 2nd and Castroneves in 3rd, Marlboro Team Penske was almost back to winning form. Kanaan held off the Penske teammates to record his third victory of the season and further extend his points lead. Townsend Bell went on to record his first top 5 finish in only his second IRL start while Mark Taylor finished a respectable 7th in his first start for Access Motorsports.

Results

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