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It's a Wide-Open Open-Wheel Race

Almost anyone could win Fontana IRL event today, and a tight finish wouldn't be surprising.

September 21, 2003|Mike Kupper | Times Staff Writer

If you go by Saturday's qualifying, points leader Helio Castroneves figures to win today's Toyota 400 Indy car race at Fontana.

Castroneves, in a Team Penske Dallara-Toyota, turned a track-record lap for Indy Racing League cars, 226.757 mph, in winning the pole for the 200-lap race over the two-mile California Speedway.

If you go by victories, Scott Dixon, second in the standings, figures to win. He's won three of the 14 IRL events this season, more than any other driver. And he qualified third, at 226.219 in the G Force Toyota he drives for Chip Ganassi.

If you go by recent trends, Sam Hornish Jr., fifth in the standings, figures to win today. Chevrolet gave him a new, stronger engine for his Dallara at midseason, making him competitive again, and he's won two of the last three races.

If you go by, "He's due," it's Tony Kanaan's race. Third in the standings, he hasn't won since the Phoenix race in March. And if you go by sentimentality, Gil de Ferran's the guy. The Indy 500 winner, fourth in the standings, is running his second-to-last race before retiring.

If you go by the standings, one of these guys figures to win, since they've accounted for 10 victories in the 14 races run. Besides, only 91 points separate first-place Castroneves from fifth-place Hornish -- who made up 40 points when he won at Joliet, Ill., two weeks ago -- with a maximum of 52 points available to the winner, 50 for winning the race, two more if he leads the most laps.

But then ...

Well, Kenny Brack is out of the title picture, but he did qualify second Saturday, at 226.280, and as a former Indy 500 winner and IRL champion, he's no stranger to the winner's circle.

All of which means, whatever rationale you use, there's no such thing as a sure thing in racing, especially a race for open-wheel cars at California Speedway.

The last time the IRL was here, for instance, in March 2002, Hornish beat Jaques Lazier, ending their side-by-side duel with a wheel-brushing outside pass in the fourth turn of the last lap of a 400-mile race. Recent CART races here have produced the same kind of competition, the 2001 Marlboro 500 yielding a record 73 lead changes.

"To me, [races here] are like two-hour sprint races," said Brack, who's driving a Dallara-Honda for Bobby Rahal. "Everybody is running side by side from start to finish. It's the way this racing is. It's packs of cars....

"You can qualify deep in the field and still win the race, but you have to have the car for it. I'm not in the championship fight but I still want to win a race."

For all of that, though, Castroneves would seem to be the driver to beat. He was fastest in practice Saturday morning, at 226.186, in still air, then went even faster in qualifying, when the wind was up.

Castroneves, who won from the pole last month at Gateway International Speedway near St. Louis, is hoping that the customary Penske reliability is working hand in hand with his speed today.

"It looks like we have a tremendous car," he said. "It's very fast. Everything is going the way we are planning, but until the checkered flag, you can't count on [anything].... A lot depends on the yellow [caution] flags. I think there will be more green flags than yellow and the race will be very competitive. We'll probably have 10 cars contending for the lead, so ... a lot will depend on the yellows.

"I just want to run my race and not worry about [the other title contenders].... You can't think about those other guys or you will go backwards. I have to be smart. Sometimes, when you're fast, you just sort of forget that and put the hammer down. I have to not forget. I have to be smarter than that."

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