Front of the race worth watching; so is the back
There's a race within a race this weekend at Kentucky Speedway in the Meijer Indy 300 (Sunday 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
At the front of the field there's the small matter of the tightest championship battle in Indy Racing League history, with four drivers clustered within 31 points of series leader Helio Castroneves. The Brazilian will battle his teammate Sam Hornish Jr. and Target/Ganassi Racing's Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon for victory and for any kind of momentum heading into the last two races of the 2006 campaign.
Yet even with that compelling storyline, most of the media attention this weekend probably will be focused somewhat further back in the field, where Danica Patrick will have some female competition for the first time in her two-year IRL career. Sarah Fisher, who preceded Danica as the IRL's most popular driver, is returning to the IndyCar Series in a one-off run for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
Because Fisher's full-time IRL career seems like it happened a lifetime ago (it was actually from 2000-03), it's easy to forget that Fisher is still only 25 -- just a year and a half older than Danica. Also lost in the mists of time are the records that Fisher set for female IndyCar racers. She earned pole position for the 2002 Kentucky IRL race with a track record that still stands, and she notched two podium finishes, including a second at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2001. Patrick has racked up three poles, but her best race finish is fourth place on four occasions.
Of course it should be pointed out that the IRL of 2005-06 is a vastly different animal than the IRL of the early 21st century. In truth, Fisher was competing against a much weaker field of teams and drivers back in 2000 and 2001 when it seemed like her IndyCar career might take off as Patrick's subsequently did. For whatever reason, sponsors and media did not gravitate to Fisher like they have to Patrick, leaving Fisher to pursue unsuccessfully a third-level stock car career.
An out-of-work Fisher joined Dreyer & Reinbold for eight races in 2002, resulting in the Kentucky pole and a fourth-place finish at Nazareth Speedway. But the team wasn't able to sell sponsorship for her program. Up against the influx of powerful CART teams that changed allegiance to the IRL, Fisher's 2003 season was a disaster, the only highlight being a front-row start at Richmond International Raceway.
Now she's back with a D & R team that is struggling just to keep the doors open. As much of a feel-good story as it would be, Fisher is unlikely to make much of an impact on the track this weekend up against the might of Penske, Ganassi, Andretti Green -- or even Rahal Letterman.
"This weekend is all about getting back on the bike," she said. "It's a personal goal of mine to at least run in the top 10. I want to be there at the end and racing as hard as I did before, and that in itself will achieve results."
The spotlight will be on Patrick this weekend as well after the highly-publicized temper tantrum she threw after running out of fuel near the end of the Michigan 400. Patrick reportedly refused to follow team orders designed to save fuel and the relationship between Danica and Rahal Letterman Racing appears to be unraveling for their final three races together before she departs for Andretti Green.
Meanwhile, the 'A' race likely will be contested again between the Penske and Ganassi teams, which have combined to win 10 of 11 races this year. But Fernandez Racing has won the Kentucky event for the last two years, with Adrian Fernandez behind the wheel in 2004 and Scott Sharp taking over in 2005. Sharp has finished in the top four at Kentucky in half of his six IndyCar starts at the 1.5-mile tri-oval.
"I certainly would love to see a repeat of our victory last year, but realistically, we know we have our work cut out for us," Sharp said. "There has been a lot of dominance at the front of the field this year by the Penske and Ganassi teams and, hopefully, we can change that this weekend."
Andretti Green also hopes to find the winner's circle again on a more regular basis. AGR has taken advantage of the IRL's rule that grants IndyCar test days to teams that field Pro Series cars on several occasions this year and it benefited Tony Kanaan at Milwaukee. The team hopes Dario Franchitti's recent test at Kentucky will lead to another win in a year when they have been few and far between for the dominant team in the series of 2004-05.
"The testing program that we have with the Indy Pro Series is paying off for us," Kanaan said. "We ran much better at Michigan as a result of it."
With 50 points available for a race win, Kanaan still conceivably could contend for the title from 67 points behind. But realistically, it's going to come down to a fight between Castroneves, Hornish, Wheldon and Dixon. Castroneves leads Hornish by eight points, and Ganassi's Wheldon and Dixon are 17 and 31 points back respectively.
So in theory, Castroneves will be in points-gathering mode; Wheldon will go for broke; Hornish will be hoping for a mistake-free run; and Dixon will be there waiting to pounce if any of them falters.
"No one should count us out," Dixon stated. "With three races to go in 2003, I was in fourth place in the driver standings with a 42-point deficit behind Castroneves. The last two races were very frustrating for us but with three races left, we still can do this.
"We have all the elements to be successful. I've got two wins this year and I'm looking for more."
Kentucky races usually have been fast and clean; Hornish averaged nearly 198 mph in winning the 2003 race in a remarkable display of dominance. Sunday's 200-lapper therefore should offer plenty of excitement -- if you can keep your eyes on the front of the field.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.