- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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JOLIET, Ill. -- Patiently lying back and allowing other drivers to lead isn't in Sam Hornish Jr.'s nature. Unless there's an IndyCar Series championship at stake.
Hornish was willing to let Target Ganassi Racing's Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon dominate the Peak Antifreeze 300 at Chicagoland Speedway. But a third-place finish for the 27-year-old American star was enough to clinch his third IRL IndyCar Series title.
Hornish and Wheldon actually finished tied on 475 points after 14 races, but Hornish was awarded the crown because he won four races in 2006 to Wheldon's two.
Marlboro Team Penske's Helio Castroneves, who entered the Chicagoland weekend leading the IRL championship by 1 point, ended up 2 points short of his first title after finishing fourth on Sunday, while 2003 series champion Dixon ended the year 15 points out.
"That's about as excited as I have ever been," said Hornish. "Winning the Indy 500 was the highlight of my career, but this is close.
"The first two titles seemed a little easier and it's been a couple years so maybe I appreciate this one a little more. We've had ups and downs this season but we're just glad we hit the end of the season on an up note."
It was a classic four-way battle all year long in which the championship lead changed six times. Hornish, Castroneves and Wheldon were extremely well-matched, while Dixon was half a tick off the ultimate pace in most races but he was slightly more consistent.
All four could look back on individual moments that might have cost them the championship; Hornish crashed at Nashville, blew an engine at Michigan and couldn't run with the leaders on road courses. But his mastery of oval tracks 1.5 miles and longer gave him enough of an advantage to secure the crown.
Castroneves squandered his championship chances when he got popped for speeding in the pits exiting his first scheduled stop on Sunday. Castroneves was trying to beat countryman Tony Kanaan out of the pits, and he said Kanaan later hindered his efforts to catch back up to the lead trio. He also had contact with the lapped car of Ed Carpenter, causing him to lose touch with the leaders late in the race.
By the end of the 200-lap contest, only the four championship contenders remained on the lead lap.
"It's unfortunate that backmarkers kind of screwed up the championship battle," Castroneves said. "The penalty certainly didn't help me, though it made the race interesting. For most of the race we had to chase those guys, but the yellow [for debris on Lap 150] got us right up with them with 25 laps to go.
"Everyone had misfortune this year. That's why we came out so close to each other. Now everyone will go into next year with the same mentality, that every point counts."
It was the 12th American open-wheel national championship for team owner Roger Penske, but his first in five attempts since switching his team full-time to the Indy Racing League in 2002.
"[Sam] is some driver and today was a day of no mistakes," Penske said. "Helio had a tough time coming into the pits with the speed, but it was a good clean race. We just had to stay in line and let those guys pull us. At the end, I didn't want them to get too racy."
Sunday's result typified the 2006 season for Wheldon, who was trying to repeat as series champion. He dominated six races this year but won only two, through a combination of his and the Ganassi team's mistakes and plain bad racing luck.
"I obviously had only one goal today," said Wheldon, whose 194.828 mph average was the third fastest in IRL history. "In the last few races, we let a few results slip. Today was about making a point for next year and doing everything in my power to win a championship. We certainly led our fair share of laps, so all credit to the boys for that.
"It's a good way to end the season, but to tell you the truth, halfway through the race, I was thinking about things to improve for 2007. We need a little more consistency and the short ovals were a problem for us. Scott and I just need to work together a little bit better."
Wheldon paid tribute to Hornish and Penske Racing after the race.
"It seems [Hornish] has been around me the whole season so I didn't expect him to disappear today," Wheldon said. "It was a four-way fight all year long. You could see the distance we put between all the other cars out there. I've got to give credit to Roger Penske and Sam Hornish. They gave away fewer points than we did."
With three IndyCar Series championships under his belt, along with the Indianapolis 500 trophy he so desperately coveted, Hornish might have achieved everything he can in open-wheelers. Penske Racing's stock car operation has talked about running him in selected ARCA or NASCAR Busch races in preparation for an eventual move into stock cars, and Roger Penske confirmed Sunday Hornish could make a couple of one-off starts next year.
"I can't think how next year could be any better, but hopefully it is," Hornish said. "I'm still three Indy 500s behind Rick [Mears], A.J. [Foyt] and Al [Unser]! So I look forward to next season. As you accomplish the next thing, you distance yourself even more from your competition. Coming in today, I was the only two-time IndyCar Series champion, and two other guys could have tied that today.
"You just have to keep moving forward. The next thing I want to do besides winning Indy again is to try to win on a road course."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.