Peak Antifreeze Indy 300
September 10 , 2006
With four drivers in contention for the IRL IndyCar Championship, this year's final round, the Peak Antifreeze Indy 300, was undoubtedly going to be one of the most hotly contested in recent memory. Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon entered the event seeking their second titles, Marlboro Team Penske's Helio Castroneves valiantly pursued his first major championship while Sam Hornish Jr. triumphantly chased his third crown. After qualifying on pole the race was very much a waiting game for Hornish who patiently held his own during the event. For Castroneves, who came into the weekend with a one point lead, the afternoon unfolded as a series of hurdles.
From the drop of the green it became obvious that no driver was going to walk away with the championship. The Ganassi cars bolted around Hornish on the first lap before ensuing in a wheel to wheel battle. Further back in the pack the race was just as fierce with Vitor Meira and Tomas Scheckter making contact on lap 12. Though both drivers kept their cars on the track and continued, the marshals saw enough to throw out the first of only two yellows. Wheldon took the opportunity to flawlessly lead the pack in and out of pits, avoiding mishaps that plagued his chase for the title earlier in the season. Castroneves, however, was sent to the back of the pack after speeding in the pits; a costly mistake that took the Brazilian out of contention for much of the afternoon. Wheldon slotted in behind A.J. Foyt IV, who stayed out during the caution and led his first IndyCar laps as a sub for injured Dario Franchitti, in anticipation of the restart. With the race back under way the Britton brushed aside Foyt and assumed the lead ahead of Dixon and Hornish.
Further back Castroneves struggled to carve his way to the front as the leaders ran away with the race. On lap 27 he broke into the top ten; ten laps later the Brazilian found himself in fifth. By then, however, the top three had gained nearly seven seconds over best of the rest Scott Sharp. Castroneves desperately needed a yellow to close the insurmountable margin but had to wait until the closing stages of the race. Meanwhile, Wheldon and Dixon continued to run near formation laps with Hornish a close third, a position that would guarantee him the title so long as he did not drop back. The leaders cleanly pitted under green beginning on lap 65; Wheldon held on to the lead while Hornish tucked in behind with Dixon a little further back. The leader continued to dominate the event through the halfway mark but was slowed considerably by heavy lapped traffic which allowed Hornish to momentarily take the lead.
Once clear of lapped cars Wheldon was on point once more and clinched three bonus points for leading the most laps on lap 113. Two laps later the leader made his way back into the pits for the third time that day. Hornish followed a few laps later and both resumed in that position. With penultimate stops sorted the championship contenders were the only four cars left on the lead lap; albeit with Castroneves some 18 seconds behind. Hornish firmly held onto the title as Castroneves struggled to keep up with the leaders in open air. The Brazilian had to wait until lap 148 for the final yellow of the day, thrown for debris.
Wheldon brought the field back into the pits for the final time this season. With the help of a quick crew and a heavy foot, Hornish edged out Wheldon who wiggled as he made his way out ahead of Dixon . Castroneves, whose prayers were answered, technically lined up fourth on the lead lap but was mired with lapped cars. Hornish led the cars to the restart but Wheldon again jumped out in front and took command of the closing stages of the race. Dixon soon followed his teammate at the front while Hornish was uncharacteristically passive as the race began to taper, no doubt knowing that he had the title in his grasp. Further back, Castroneves made his way around the lapped cars and for a few moments looked to challenge at the front before being caught in between a battle for fifth involving Tony Kanaan and Ed Carpenter. With five laps to go Hornish momentarily challenged Wheldon after Dixon made a mistake but thought it best to run a conservative last few laps. The now three-time champ aptly crossed the finish line third behind the Ganassi cars with Castroneves almost three seconds back. An ecstatic Hornish triumphantly celebrated with victory burnouts on the front stretch, capping off an illustrious season that saw him finally capture the Borg-Warner. A despondent Castroneves respectfully thanked his crew while Wheldon celebrated a bittersweet victory alongside Dixon who seemed satisfied to close a competitive season.