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A Bittersweet End
by Esteban Morales

Sam Hornish
photo: Haber

     In recent memory Tony George has been the target of bombastic ridicule and the butt of endless jokes. A quick browse through a few online forums and it’s easy to find that not all within the racing community see eye to eye with George’s vision. However, it is difficult to dispute with his success. What began in 1996 as a fledgling series largely comprised of unproven talent has now morphed into the most successful open-wheel series in the country boasting its strongest entry list to date. As the Indy Racing League celebrated its 100th event, the Firestone Indy 225, there was also cause for lament. After all, this would be the final event at the storied Nazareth Speedway, a track synonymous with the name Andretti.

     After picking up his 100th win as an owner and spending millions in its renovation, it was only fitting to find Roger Penske’s Marlboro red and white machines on the front row with Helio Castroneves on pole. Castroneves led Sam Hornish Jr., Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Darren Manning and the rest cleanly through the first lap on the rugged mile-long oval. Further down the pack Tomas Scheckter made a torrential start that saw him pass five cars around the outside within the opening laps. While Scheckter settled into sixth, Hornish was all over Castroneves at the front with Kanaan joining shortly thereafter. Although he was under heavy pressure, Castroneves led smoothly seeking victory on the same track where he earned his last.

     Meanwhile, championship hopeful, Buddy Rice, made no progress almost a quarter ways through the event. Within the coming laps Scheckter drastically fell through the field and eventually pitted on lap 55. Just five laps later Mark Taylor made contact with the outside retaining wall after tangling with Townsend Bell. With the yellow flag out, Castroneves led the field into pit lane. The scramble off pit road led by Castroneves left Kanaan, Hornish, Dan Wheldon and Adrian Fernandez in tow.

Sam Hornish
photo: Haber

     As Castroneves controlled the event during and after the lap 71 restart, it seemed no one could challenge the Brazilian. As heavy traffic neared circumstances quickly changed. On lap 104, teammate Sam Hornish Jr. took second from Kanaan and first from Castroneves as he slid into third; a handful of laps later Castroneves dropped two more positions to fifth. As pit stops neared Ed Carpenter smacked the wall exiting turn 2 and opened the door to a tumultuous set of stops once the yellow flew. Hornish led the field in seemingly under control; moments later though, Hornish exited with the fuel hose stuck to his car. As the hose tore it doused his fuel man and a few crew members with methanol erupting into an invisible fire. While the fire was extinguished Hornish continued to lap the oval with a fire now emanating from his Dallara’s buckeye. He entered pit lane one more time and the fire was quickly put out. As if that was not enough, IRL officials charged Hornish with a stop-and-go for the incident.

Dan Wheldon

photo: Haber

     Dan Wheldon became the lucky recipient of Hornish’s demise and led the field to the green on lap 161. Just five laps later the yellow was back out, this time for debris on the track. Andretti Green Racing teammates, Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, and Dario Franchitti ran 1-2-3 at the front after the restart. With some quick pit work and crafty racing, Buddy Rice was up to fourth by lap 180. Three laps later the fourth caution of the event flew after Townsend Bell charged into Scott Sharp sending the two into the turn 4 retaining wall.

     Once the green flag fell one last time, the AGR trio led by Wheldon kept their position at the front. This not only allowed Wheldon to collect his third win this year, but AGR’s first 1-2-3 finish and one last victory for the Andretti name at Nazareth.

Results:

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