<
>

Surging Hornish seizes points lead with victory

7/3/2006

Sam Hornish Jr. is making it look easy. Dan Wheldon is merely making it interesting.

That's the difference between Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing these days, a gap that increasingly appears headed toward Penske claiming its first Indy Racing League championship.

Sunday at Kansas Speedway, Hornish notched his second consecutive victory and moved ahead of teammate Helio Castroneves to take over first in the points race. He led 149 of 200 laps in the Kansas Lottery Indy 300, a dominant performance that survived a late Wheldon challenge.

Wheldon, the polesitter, inched ahead of Hornish on the outside of the 1.5-mile tri-oval to lead laps 197 and 198 in a thrilling side-by-side. But Hornish's Dallara-Honda stayed true on the inside, reclaiming the lead and bringing home the win by .0793 of a second (a relative rout at Kansas, which the past two years had two of the circuit's closest finishes).

"You can't keep giving them away if you want to win championships," Wheldon said. "We gave another one away."

That might have been a little strong an assessment for Kansas, but it does sum up the season for last year's IndyCar series champion. Three weeks ago at Texas, Wheldon led 171 of 200 laps but saw his chances for victory vanish when his crew dropped a wheel nut on a pit stop with 15 laps remaining. Penske's Castroneves took advantage and won.

Two weeks before that, at Indianapolis, Wheldon appeared poised for a repeat win in the 500 until a late tire puncture forced an off-sequence pit stop. The 148 laps he led up to that point earned only a footnote in a fourth-place finish. Hornish, of course, took the checkered flag.

Winning Indianapolis was the last piece Hornish needed to secure his open-wheel legacy, but the two-time series champion repeatedly has stated his desire to bring home a title for Roger Penske. With the Kansas win, he's the favorite in the Team Penske garage to do it.

"We're just so happy right now," said Hornish, who came to Kansas Speedway trailing teammate Castroneves by five in the points and left leading by 20 after winning on his 27th birthday.

In the middle of Hornish's back-to-back wins, Castroneves has backpedaled from the form that won three of the season's first six races. He finished 10th at Richmond after losing a right-rear tire with four laps remaining, then damaged his rear wing in an early spin at Kansas and, although he gamely fought back, finished sixth.

Castroneves surrendered his points lead, and Ganassi's other title hopeful continued his slide. Scott Dixon was second in points by only 12 after his June 4 win at Watkins Glen. A month later, he's third and trailing the leader by 39.

Dixon's Kansas performance wasn't poor, but it wasn't a headliner, either. He led five laps early but ultimately slipped behind teammate Wheldon and finished fourth.

"We battled up front the whole race hanging on the back of those two guys [Wheldon and Hornish] … but I can't help feeling like it should have been a better result," Dixon said.

Wheldon knows that feeling; in fact, it's turning into an itch. After Richmond, he vowed not to shave again until he wins, and he'll have to wait at least two more weeks -- until July 15 at Nashville Superspeedway -- to get the chance at both. He could turn into Rip Van Winkle if recent history continues repeating.

With eight races down and six remaining, the title is Hornish's to lose. And if his front-running style continues, seconds and thirds by everyone else won't pry it away.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com