Toyota Indy 400
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Tasty Seconds
by Esteban Morales

photo: Garner

     The spectacle on the back straight of the California Speedway following the Toyota Indy 400 was a telling sign, four Andretti Green Racing machines paying tribute to the late Greg Moore and simultaneously commemorating a newly crowned hero. While Adrian Fernandez jubilantly celebrated his third victory of the season in front of a partisan SoCal crowd, all eyes would soon be fixed on the 2004 Indy Car Indy Racing League Champion, Tony Kanaan. Kanaan came into the penultimate round of the season knowing he had one challenger left within a field of over twenty. With a chance to clinch the title in sight, Kanaan never buckled and did just that adding yet another podium to an already astounding season that has seen the Brazilian break a slew of records.

     Although this was the second to last race of the season there was still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the event. For starters, former Formula 3000 driver, Tomas Enge, would be making his debut with Patrick Racing replacing Jaques Lazier for the final two events; there has been a lot of speculation surrounding this team with the possibility of expansion for 2005. Additionally, Greg Ray announced his likely return to the cockpit in a second Access Motorsports entry for the Texas Motor Speedway finale. Throw in strong rumors tying Champcar pilot Patrick Carpentier to Eddie Cheever’s team and 2005 is definitely looking quite intriguing.

     Rumors and speculation aside though, Helio Castroneves went on to grab his fourth pole of the year and third in a row at the two mile superspeedway. Qualifying also saw Darren Manning make hard contact during his second lap; Manning would have lined up fourth on the grid but was unable to make the start due to injuries sustained during impact. Despite Manning’s incident, Toyota powered cars started first through third in the field of twenty-one. Honda on the other hand did not fare as well with Adrian Fernandez, the top Honda qualifier, in fourth and Tony Kanaan starting at the tail end of the field due to electrical gremlins.

     Once the green was out there was little Toyota could do as Fernandez muscled himself into the lead midway through the first lap. Fernandez and Castroneves began pulling away within a handful of laps but were halted by a lap 9 caution thrown for Vitor Meira lightly brushing turn 2; Meira’s car sustained no damage and was able to continue. With the yellow out Fernandez led all with the exception of Mark Taylor into pit lane but suffered a long stop and fell to eighth. Taylor picked up the pace for the restart but soon faded as Dan Wheldon made his way to the front of the pack. Castroneves and Wheldon dueled for a few laps until the Brazilian took back command of the event with teammate, Sam Hornish Jr., in tow. Meanwhile, Tony Kanaan had his hands full in traffic but would soon join the leaders at the front.

     By lap 25 Castroneves had considerably stretched his lead and clearly dominated the event. 25 laps later the Marlboro Team Penske driver locked ‘em up on his way into pit road and retained his lead following the sequence. With Castroneves out in front the real action was just behind as Kanaan and Buddy Rice battled it out for second while Fernandez began clawing back to the front. Halfway through the event Castroneves retained his lead after a third set of stops with Rice, Kanaan, Fernandez and Wheldon in pursuit.

     Kanaan soon took second from Rice a dozen laps later and positioned himself to take Castroneves’ lead after the fourth set of stops on lap 128. Castroneves tucked in behind Kanaan and momentarily lost touch in traffic before retaking command. The pole-sitter coolly handled the last set of stops and looked poised to win his first race of the season until a late yellow for debris bunched the grid on lap 173. Kanaan made use of the restart and immediately led the event once more. Just a lap later the yellow was back out after A.J. Foyt IV brushed turns 3 and 4. With only 18 to go the green was waved atop the flag stand. Kanaan retained his lead and just as it looked like he was in the clear yet another yellow was thrown, this time after Alex Barron got loose and backed his car into turn 2.

photo: Garner

     Fernandez had now made up considerable distance and was positioned in third to take full advantage of the restart. The Mexican driver had the Southern California fans on their feet as he took second from Castroneves and caught the leader. Kanaan and Fernandez were wheel to wheel for about a lap when suddenly rookie Tomas Enge and Tomas Scheckter collided. Enge got loose and ran up the track into the path of Scheckter’s Panther Racing machine. With such a small number of laps left to run and the leaders running side by side at the time of the accident, the event was oddly reminiscent of the 2002 Indy 500. Officials decided to award the lead to Kanaan while the safety crew ensured the leaders would have one more lap to duel it out. Fernandez was all over Kanaan at the restart and the two went side by side with the Brazilian taking the inside line. The wheel to wheel action made for a typical IRL finish with Fernandez scoring his second victory on the superspeedway and second straight victory of the season. With the podium Kanaan secured his first major open wheel championship since winning the Indy Lights title back in 1997. It didn’t seem as though he was at a loss after losing the race by such a tiny margin though. “The second place that tastes the best in my life” he said of his finish.

Results:

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