Meijer Indy 300
The Fat Lady's not Singing Just Yet
by Esteban Morales
August 13 , 2006
Marlboro Team Penske added another near perfect weekend to its impressive 2006 tally following the Meijer Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway. With only thirty-one points separating the top four coming into the event, Team Penske looked to continue its season-long domination while Target Chip Ganassi Racing was ready to take the fight to the Marlboro cars in a desperate bid to catch Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves. Once the cars hit the track, timing and scoring looked much like any other race this season with the Penske and Ganassi cars at the head of the field. Castroneves ultimately captured his sixth pole of the season while Hornish started from the outside of the first row with TCGR's Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon in third and fifth respectively; Tony Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing snuck into the top four and split the Ganassi cars. Further back in the field the only women in the field, Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher who was making her return to the series, qualified side by side in the sixth row.
Little changed at the front with the drop of the green flag; Castroneves headed the field for the first few laps before Hornish muscled his way to the top spot on the fifth lap. Meanwhile Wheldon attempted to challenge for second while Dixon struggled to keep up with the leaders. By lap 30 the slower car of Marty Roth added some drama to the race as the leaders had to slice by him and make it three-wide in turns 1 and 2 giving Castroneves the opportunity to retake the lead with Wheldon and Hornish in tow. At the quarter mark of the race the top four continued to run nose-to-tail and checked out with Ed Carpenter in fifth as best of the rest several seconds behind. A few laps later Carpenter brought out the first caution of the event by spinning while exiting the pits just after the Penske duo had made their way in.
The stops and the yellow shuffled the order at the front with Wheldon leading over Dixon, Kanaan, Vitor Meira, Jeff Simmons and the rest. At the lap 66 restart Dixon tucked under Wheldon in order to open up some ground on the rest, further back Hornish and Castroneves began to carve their way through the pack. Hornish climbed to fourth just before a lap 88 yellow for debris. The leaders pitted and the Panther Racing crew surprised the competition by sending Meira back out in the lead with a quick stop. However, Meira's stint at the front was short lived. Hornish, anxious to regain the championship lead, retook point with his patented pass along the outside. Meira struggled and fell back while Kanaan and Wheldon joined Hornish at the front. Hornish continued to dominate the event while Castroneves clawed his way back into the top five before the penultimate yellow flew on lap 120 for Kosuke Matsuura who lost the back end of his Dallara and smacked turn 4. Hornish and most of the field pitted under the yellow, Bryan Herta gambled on strategy and stayed out.
At the restart the leaders put on a spectacular performance with Herta attempting to keep his lead while Hornish and Wheldon forced a three-wide situation for several laps. The race settled by lap 145 with Wheldon out in front looking poised to capture his second win of the season. Wheldon was able to fend off Hornish and Castroneves in the closing stages just before his final stop for a splash of fuel. Wheldon flew into pit lane and threw away another opportunity at victory by missing his marks in his pit box. The Ganassi crew was relieved to find Dixon ahead of Hornish just before an ill-timed final caution flew for Scott Sharp's spinning car with only five laps remaining. Dixon and Hornish crossed the line side by side at the restart, one lap later Hornish took the lead on the outside and crossed the line half a second clear of Dixon and Castroneves at the finish. Although the win handed the points lead back to Hornish, a celebration would be premature by all standards as the series heads to the last road course of the season at Infineon Raceway where only Scott Dixon finished in the top ten while the rest of this year's title contenders finished in the lower half of the field one year ago. With only seven points separating the Penske teammates, Castroneves still has a very realistic shot at this year's title.