For Wheldon, it's how you finish

Updated: June 27, 2004, 2:42 AM ET
Associated Press

Dan Wheldon
Wheldon
RICHMOND, Va. -- After 249 laps of bumping and jockeying Saturday night, it was a one-lap sprint to the finish.

Dan Wheldon was the unlikely winner of the SunTrust Indy Challenge, coming back from the 20th starting position to outsprint pole-winner Helio Castroneves in the final turn on the three-quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway.

"I don't think I had the quickest car today, but what helped me was I could run a lot of laps on the Firestones and my car just kept getting better and better,'' Wheldon said.

Coming out of a caution period with a lap remaining, Castroneves blew by Vitor Meira on the inside of the first turn, then made a run at Wheldon, falling short by 0.2038 seconds.

IRL officials later disallowed Castroneves' pass of Meira because the track lights didn't change from yellow to green in the final lap. Meira finished second in the official results and Castroneves was third.

Wheldon, who won earlier this year in Japan, moved into second place in the season standings, 17 points behind Tony Kanaan. It was the fourth victory of the season for his team, Andretti Green Racing.

The race turned on a crash involving Sam Hornish Jr. and Tomas Scheckter in lap 188. Hornish tried to pass Scheckter on the outside of the second turn and clipped the South African's front wheel, sending himself into a slow 360.

Hornish, who led for 76 laps at the start of the race, was able to continue but dropped to 16th. He finished in 13th place, while Scheckter failed to finish.

"That's what can happen when we're that close,'' Hornish said.

Castroneves pitted during the caution at lap 192, while Wheldon and Meira stayed on the track. Wheldon drove the final 121 laps without refueling, while Meira went without a pit stop for 115 laps.

"It was all strategy,'' Meira said. "If it was green all the way, we would have struggled a lot.''

Fortunately for Wheldon and Meira, there were 74 caution laps during the race, including 20 in the first half when a light drizzle started to fall on the track.

Castroneves and Hornish, Team Penske teammates, led for much of the first half of the race, pulling ahead after every caution period and opening leads of as many as six seconds on the rest of the field.

"It was really not the fastest car that won,'' Castroneves said.

Wheldon was actually lapped by Hornish early in the race.

Hornish lost the lead to Dario Franchitti after pitting during a caution period at lap 113. Franchitti led for 79 laps, more than any driver in the race, before he lost the lead to Wheldon during a pit stop at lap 192.

Four drivers dropped out of the race following accidents and two others failed to finish because of problems with their cars.

Darren Manning had worked his way from a starting position of 11th to sixth place before hitting the wall hard coming out of a caution period in lap 132. The front part of Manning's car fell off as he pulled into pit road.

Rookie Mark Taylor also had a disappointing race, starting third after a surprisingly fast qualifying run Friday, but dropping to 18th place before crashing into the wall in lap 222.

Richmond's track, the shortest on the IRL circuit, was repaved during the offseason, allowing 11 drivers to break Gil de Ferran's track record during qualifying on Friday.

Wheldon said the track conditions made it easier to keep control of his car, particularly in traffic.

"It seemed last year they strategically placed the bumps in places where they more than likely would cause the driver the most grief,'' he said.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

ALSO SEE