Classic IRL title battle looms
Pull the belts a little tighter, because whether you're sitting in a car or on a couch, the battle for the 2006 IRL IndyCar Series championship promises to be a classic.
Four drivers representing the league's top two teams are separated by just 33 points heading into the final two races of the season, and two more pilots are mathematically eligible in the unlikely event that Penske Racing and Ganassi Racing self-destruct down the stretch.
Penske's Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves and Ganassi's Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon have combined to win 11 of 12 races and lead 82.2 percent of all laps run this year. There's no reason to expect that to change at Infineon Raceway (Aug. 27) and Chicagoland Speedway (Sept. 10).
The final pair of venues symbolize old-school and new-school IRL. The 1.5-mile Chicagoland superspeedway is consistent with the heritage of Tony George's series, while Infineon's hilly and twisty layout is indicative of the future direction of the IndyCar championship.
Hornish is the IRL's most successful driver, with 18 race wins and championships in 2001 and '02. But both of the Ohio native's titles came before the IndyCar Series added road racing to its repertoire, and he is yet to finish better than sixth on a road or street course.
Balancing that out, Hornish is almost peerless on 1½ mile tracks, the bread-and-butter of the IRL. In fact, neither Hornish nor Wheldon has finished lower than fourth in five races on tracks of that length this year.
"The way this is playing out with the road course and the one-and-a-half finishing the season is definitely a lot better for the fight to the end," said Dixon, who won the 2003 IndyCar title in the closest championship battle in league history until now.
Hornish and teammate Castroneves have swapped the points lead back and forth throughout the summer, with Sam regaining a seven-point advantage with his recent victory at Kentucky Speedway. Wheldon's pit lane misjudgment in the Kentucky race dropped him 24 points back, while Dixon is still hanging in there with a 33-point deficit.
"The story of the season has been the four of us battling along for race wins, for poles and the championship," Hornish remarked. "We're all fighting tooth-and-nail and hopefully I'll figure out the right combination at the end to keep all three of them behind me."
Winning a race is worth 50 points, 40 are awarded for second place and 35 for third. With the current 19-car field, a driver would receive 12 points for finishing last, so factoring in the three-point bonus available for leading the most laps in a race, a 41-point swing is theoretically possible.
"You can easily make up 16 or 17 points in this championship in a weekend," Wheldon said.
With that in mind, let's assess the championship prospects for the IRL's final four, based on their prior championship history and performance on 1.5-mile speedways and road courses:
HORNISH: Sam has responded well to championship pressure in the past. Pitted against Castroneves (albeit driving for different teams) in 2002, Hornish won the last two races of the season while Helio finished fourth and second. In the five-man 2003 battle, Hornish won the penultimate round to vault into late title contention, but broke in the finale.
Despite his road course woes (finished eighth at St. Petersburg and 12th at Watkins Glen), Hornish is still the favorite for the crown. When the IRL added road races, Penske prepared a custom Champ Car for Sam to polish his skills in and he runs shifter karts several times a week. He doesn't need to suddenly blossom into a winner at Infineon, but he needs to bring the car home in the top five or six to maintain or stay near the championship lead heading to Chicagoland.
If he can manage to be within 10 points of the front for the Joliet race, Hornish should be in good shape. He's posted a third, two fourths and a pair of wins on 1.5-mile tracks this year.
CASTRONEVES: The Brazilian's season has been marked by highs and lows -- chiefly three early season wins mixed with a disappointing retirement from the Indianapolis 500. Helio is the driver most likely to win both races, but he's also the No. 1 candidate to flame out.
Case in point: Last year at Infineon, Castroneves had the fastest car but crashed with rookie Ryan Briscoe just 20 laps into the race.
In his battle with Hornish for the 2002 championship, Castroneves wasn't quite quick enough, finishing the year 5-2-4-2 to Hornish's 2-5-1-1. In 2003, Helio ended the year with a sixth and a 13th and Dixon took the million-dollar prize.
This year, Castroneves has matched Hornish with four wins, including on the St. Petersburg street course. Their 1.5-mile oval performance is also eerily similar -- Castroneves 2-1-1-6-3 against Hornish 3-4-4-1-1. The American is ahead on laps led, 647-450.
He's the only driver in the group who hasn't won an IRL championship. Will this be the year?
WHELDON: There wasn't any championship pressure during Wheldon's 2005 title campaign with Andretti Green Racing. Now with Ganassi, he's right in the thick of the fight, but coming off a missed opportunity in the last race at Kentucky.
Wheldon's pit lane miscue was one of the first he made as a driver in 2006. But the luck of the draw (a late puncture at Indianapolis) and mistakes by the team (a bad final pit stop at Texas) have combined to cost the Englishman a lot of points this year.
At 24 points back, he's by no means out of it. Wheldon is braver than anyone on the 1.5-mile tracks and I'm sure he will be mighty at Chicagoland.
But his road racing form, dating back to last year, is a bit patchy, and he has a pair of DNFs to show this year.
Wheldon won a lot of races through good fortune in 2004 and '05 and he's lost a few to bad luck this year. Will his good karma return in time to extend his championship reign?
DIXON: The New Zealander must be a favorite to win at Infineon. With wins in 2005 and 2006 at Watkins Glen, Scott is the only two-time road race winner in the series.
But Dixon hasn't matched his competition on 1.5-mile ovals this year, with a finish record of 5-9-2-4-2. He's also well behind in terms of laps led, with 150 on the season.
Dixon won his 2003 IndyCar crown with second-place finishes in the last three races, but he was helped by all four of his championship rivals finishing one of those races in the teens.
He started his 2006 stretch run the same way, with a runner-up finish to Hornish at Kentucky. But with a 33-point deficit and two to go, will that consistency be enough this time around?
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.