Commentary

Still a thrill

Chicagoland IRL event no longer the finale, but it doesn't matter

Originally Published: August 28, 2009
By Jerry Bonkowski | ESPNChicago.com

JOLIET, Ill. -- There's something about Chicagoland Speedway that seems to bring out the best -- and worst -- in several of the Indy Racing League's top drivers.

[+] EnlargeScott Dixon
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesScott Dixon has suffered back-to-back tough losses in Joliet.
That's been especially evident in each of the past three years, when the Speedway played host to the IRL season finale. Unfortunately, the 1.5-mile oval no longer marks the end of the season for the IRL. That distinction has moved to Homestead Miami Speedway in South Florida.

Rather, Chicagoland Speedway now hosts the third-from-last points-paying race with Saturday night's Peak Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy 300.

Ah, but few Chicago racing fans can forget the exciting finishes in those races, as well as the respective finish in the championship standings each year:

In 2006, Sam Hornish Jr. had to get through the season-ending race at Chicago to clinch his third IRL championship. But he did it the hard way, having to resort to a championship tiebreaker with Dan Wheldon, who won the actual race that afternoon. With the two drivers tied in the standings after the race at 475 points each, Hornish, who had won the Indianapolis 500 just a few months earlier, ultimately was crowned champion based on his four wins that season to only two by Wheldon.

In 2007, Dario Franchitti, that season's Indianapolis 500 winner, won the race and the championship over Scott Dixon, the latter by a mere 13 points at Chicagoland Speedway. Dixon was in the lead with less than a half-lap to go to the checkered flag when his car ran out of fuel. Franchitti motored past to hand Dixon one of the most heartbreaking defeats in his open-wheel racing career.

Yet even with earning the title here, Franchitti, who is married to actress Ashley Judd, can't wait to put Chicagoland in his rearview mirror after Saturday night's race.

"For me, it's not one of my favorites, simply because of all the regulations we end up running with," said Franchitti, who returned to the IRL as a full-time driver this season after a failed half-year stint in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series last year. "I think it puts on a great show for the fans of the IndyCar Series, but as far as driver involvement, it's not one of my favorite."

In 2008, Dixon clinched the title at Chicagoland Speedway by 17 points over Helio Castroneves, but a race victory once again was snatched from Dixon's grasp as Castroneves beat him to the finish line by .0033 seconds -- roughly a foot beyond Dixon -- in the second-closest finish in IRL history.

"Personally, as a track and the results of that here, I'm probably more disappointed than anything," Dixon said. "I thought finally last year we'd got over the hump and maybe go to victory here, but 30 seconds later, that changed, as well."

On the flip side, Castroneves is hoping to repeat last year's win. He sits on the front row with the outside pole position alongside his Penske Racing teammate, current points leader Ryan Briscoe.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesHelio Castroneves is the defending champion.
"Going for Saturday's race and the front row is certainly much better than I did last year," said Castroneves, who started from the rear of the field in 2008 after incurring a penalty in qualifying. "The race was different, but qualifying certainly wasn't what I was expecting, but I'm very happy to be in the front row and to support my teammate.

"For us, it's obviously a fantastic racetrack, especially last year, coming from the back and winning the race. You could see the crowd, the fans, seemed to enjoy it quite a lot."

One key difference in Saturday's race is it will be the first IndyCar race at Chicagoland Speedway to be held under the lights.

"I like the change to night racing," Castroneves said. "It's a great event when it's a night race. People come from everywhere to watch a fantastic race. I feel great and the car is always good, so I just want to try and repeat what I did last year and that's what I'm going to try and do [Saturday]."

As has become a tradition at Chicagoland Speedway, we come into the race with an extremely tight points battle: Briscoe leads Franchitti by four points and Dixon by 20 points.

Mathematically, Castroneves, who won the Indianapolis 500 earlier this year, still has a chance, as well, but being 126 points behind Briscoe, he'd have to win each of the last three races and all three drivers ahead of him would have to falter -- not a likelihood.

"Maybe if it was one or two guys, but three guys, you've got to be realistic," Castroneves said. "We have to go race for the win, no question about it."

No matter who wins or loses, and regardless of the fact that the IRL champion is not decided and crowned at Chicagoland Speedway any longer, Saturday's race should continue the tradition of the past three years with an exciting race and finish.

"The racing is great for people to watch," Dixon said. "It's mentally tough for the drivers because you've got things going on left, front and center. I think the most important part is putting on a great race. That's why we're here and why we're in this business. As long as you have that element, I think it's good."

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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