- John Schwarb
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The rivals battled for the lead back and forth, side-by-side for some 40 laps late in Sunday's Meijer Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway. Hornish thought the No. 6 Penske Dallara-Honda would be good enough in the end, but it would take some work.
"If it came down to it, I would have had to time it right," Hornish said. "I would have never passed him all the way, unless we got to a point where we got into traffic, but I think I would have beat him at the line. That's all you have to win by."
As it turned out, Hornish didn't have to time anything. There would be no dramatic chase to the stripe, no breathtaking pass like the one he pulled around Marco Andretti in the final straightaway at Indianapolis.
In the end, it was just another Penske win and a Wheldon head-scratcher.
Hornish claimed his fourth win of the season in the fast and entertaining event, largely off a bad mistake in the pits by Wheldon. The two came in for a green-flag fuel-only stop at Lap 185, and only one exited quickly.
Hornish got his splash and sped off, while Wheldon overshot his Ganassi pit stall by just enough that his crew needed to push him back to the mark and then fuel.
"It was just a stupid mistake," Wheldon said. "I'll tell you my mistake, I was going to pull into Hornish's pit."
Yes, the 2005 series champion, coming into the third-to-last race of the season in a dogfight for the points title, blew a crucial late pit stop because he was looking at the wrong pit.
As close as the four Penske and Ganassi drivers have been much of the season, all placing in the top six at four races, sweeping the top four spots in two including Kentucky and owning the top four spots in points all year, the differences are starting to become clear.
Just look at the eight race wins for Team Penske (four each for Hornish and Helio Castroneves) compared to three for Ganassi.
And look at races like this.
The points race is still up for grabs with two races remaining, though Wheldon and teammate Scott Dixon are now 27 and 33 points out of first instead of 17 and 31 prior to Kentucky. But the difference is Ganassi has the bigger knack for critical errors.
Take Wheldon in the pits at Kentucky or Texas, or the failed fuel gambles like Wheldon at Richmond or Dixon early at Michigan.
"I don't know what the exact thing is, the Ganassi cars have been pretty quick, I don't know if they are taking more chances to be up there," said Hornish, who stole the points lead away from Castroneves, who finished third Sunday. "[With] Helio and I both having four wins, and they're still right there in the championship, they're doing something right. They just haven't kicked that next little bit to get into Victory Lane more often, and hopefully they won't."
Wheldon was so strong on Kentucky's 1.5-mile oval that Roger Penske said he may not have been catchable without the pit miscue, and Dixon held a late lead until Hornish passed on Lap 196 shortly after a restart. (Dixon protested that he was chopped and had to lift in order to avoid a spin, Hornish claimed it was a clean pass.)
Two excellent cars, no win.
The polar opposite of Team Penske, again.
Hornish, in picking up his second Kentucky win and record 18th overall, now is atop the points again after a one-race hiatus following a water pump failure at Michigan, with plenty of motivation ahead. If Castroneves passes him again, he won't get the privilege of delivering Roger Penske his first IndyCar Series title. A Wheldon or Dixon title would be either driver's second, knocking Hornish off his perch as the circuit's only man with multiple titles.
The latter scenario is still possible. It's just becoming increasingly hard to picture it really happening.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sam Hornish Jr. was ready to do something heroic to beat Dan Wheldon on Sunday. He didn't have to in the end, writes John Schwarb.