Castroneves, Hornish Jr. qualify 1-2 in Kentucky

Updated: August 12, 2006, 10:20 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

SPARTA, Ky. -- The road to victory lane at Kentucky Speedway will go through Team Penske.

This is a recording.

This was heard before the last two IndyCar Series events and for essentially the entire season in terms of the championship points race. Coming down the final stretch with three races remaining, Penske isn't about to change its tune.

Teammates Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. qualified 1-2 for Sunday's Meijer Indy 300 (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), the third consecutive race they have ruled the front row. They also are 1-2 in series points, not far ahead of some big rivals.

It just hasn't looked that way too often.

The Penske cars were a full mile an hour faster over the field, continuing a season-long trend. There have been 22 front-row starting spots this season, and Penske has claimed 16 of them.

Come race day, Castroneves and Hornish have combined for seven wins.

Yet, the season-long crown is still up for grabs.

Castroneves and Hornish are separated by just eight points, the closest margin this late in a season since 2002. Yet the gap back to Dan Wheldon in third place (17 points) and even back to sixth-place Tony Kanaan (67) is also the closest in recent years.

"Right now it's no one's championship," Castroneves said.

The points can change in a hurry, as evidenced two weeks ago at Michigan. Castroneves winning was no great surprise, but the efforts of his closest pursuers were.

Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon, steady all season and second in points prior to the race, ran out of fuel early and came home 16th, his worst finish of the season. He left the track fourth in points.

Hornish's day was even worse, as he had a water pump break after 19 laps. Finishing last dropped him out of first in the points, where he had resided for three races after winning at Kansas.

"It's kind of back and forth … one bad thing, one wrong thing [hurts]. Everything has become so competitive, it doesn't take much," Hornish said.

Wheldon can attest. After winning the season opener at Homestead-Miami (and becoming the one non-Penske driver to lead in points, for one week), he has tallied six top-four finishes without a win. They have been largely frustrating top-fours, like Indianapolis and Texas where he led the majority of the laps but not at the end.

"I can't deny that it has been disappointing not to capitalize on every opportunity we had this year. We've had a lot of them, but there was always something," Wheldon said. "But with just three races left, we are that much more motivated to win. I've had less wins than any of the other drivers in the hunt, but I'm only 17 points out."

Motivation is easy for Wheldon to find at Kentucky, where he has finished third the last two years and qualified third Saturday. It's a different story for teammate Dixon, who has finished 13th and 23rd and was displeased with his car Saturday after qualifying fifth.

Both will have to find speed and maybe some luck Sunday, with the Penske pair in the front row. They're catchable, but that's the catch.

"It's going to do us no good to come second to a Penske," Wheldon said. "We've got to dig deep and make the most of every opportunity that we get."

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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