Firestone Indy 200
White Flag for George and Kalkhoven
by Esteban Morales
July 15 , 2006
Heading into the Firestone Indy 200 at Nashville Superspeedway NASCAR was characteristically making racing headlines across the country. What was noteworthy to the openwheel community however were the names attached to the stories: Juan Pablo Montoya and Danica Patrick. The former astonished fans by announcing that he was coming back to the States to race stockcars after an enigmatic season with McLaren-Mercedes, almost immediately rumors tying Patrick to a NASCAR move emerged as well. Though Patrick adamantly dispelled the stories there is a clear message; with names like Patrick and Montoya being linked to NASCAR while Champ Car and IndyCar struggle to field 18 cars there is no doubt that American openwheel racing is in more trouble than it ever has been. Top teams in both camps continue to steamroll ahead but the signs are in the lower half of the grid. Earlier in the season Hemelgarn threw in the towel following a dismal Indy showing, this week it was Eddie Cheever who called it quits, and now Bobby Rahal has announced his uncertainty about a third car for next year. At least for now however, the show can go on.
The show got underway according to schedule with Target Chip Ganassi and Marlboro Team Penske dominating qualifying as Dan Wheldon collected his second pole of the season. At the start of the event Sam Hornish Jr. kept Wheldon within striking distance while Helio Castroneves' troubled second half of the season was aggravated by light contact with Scott Dixon on the opening lap; the Brazilian fell back through the field and was not a factor at the head of the field for the rest of the race. By lap 25 Wheldon and Hornish opened a considerable lead over third place Tony Kanaan who headed the Andretti Green Racing's effort until mechanical gremlins forced him into the pits twenty laps later. Wheldon continued to control the field as the first set of green flag stops approached and comfortably led after the stops cycled through.
Wheldon led over Hornish, Dixon and Vitor Meira who crept his way into the top four just before the yellow flag flew on lap 64 for Buddy Rice's slowing car. With the drop of the green and the halfway mark approaching Hornish and Meira filled Wheldon's mirrors. Hornish took the lead headed into turn 3 on the 89th circuit but Wheldon regained point just a few laps later. Meira continued to hound the leaders and made it clear that they would not be able to shake the lone Panther Racing entry. The leaders made their way into the pits for the second time beginning on lap 124. After the scheduled stops the battle at the front momentarily paused as Hornish uncharacteristically slid into turns 1 and 2 just after Meira had passed him for position. The yellow ended Hornish's day but gave Kosuke Matsuura and Danica Patrick a shot at the win; they had yet to make their final stop and found themselves at the head of the field. They led the field into the pits but lost out to Dixon , Wheldon and Meira upon exit. Dixon ran away at the restart but Wheldon reeled him back in just prior to the final caution of the night for a lone turn 4 collision involving Matsuura.
With 25 to go the green flew for the final time. Looking for his first career victory Meira pounced on Wheldon for second while Patrick held onto the leaders and threatened Wheldon at times. Ten laps remained as Wheldon took back second and closed in on Dixon . Wheldon inched closer lap after lap but was unable to challenge Dixon and finished one car length behind his TCGR teammate. Given the chance, perhaps Bourdais or Allmendinger could have found a way around the Target cars.