- John Schwarb
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RICHMOND, Va. -- A year ago, Team Penske left Richmond International Raceway riding high with a winner's trophy and its two drivers atop the points.
Saturday, Team Penske left baffled.
Defending IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. and teammate Helio Castroneves failed to deliver for the third time this season at a short oval, the kind of track where the stars usually do their best work. In six previous races around the ¾-mile RIR oval, the pair combined for three wins.
This year, they combined to make a mess as Castroneves finished 11th following a penalty and Hornish took 15th after spinning moments after the green flag flew for the SunTrust Indy Challenge. The race further solidified their positions at fifth and sixth in points, with Hornish the higher of the two and 102 points behind leader Dario Franchitti of Andretti Green Racing, the winner at Iowa two weeks ago and then at Richmond.
On a track that both Penske drivers viewed as a place to make up ground, it was instead lost immediately. With the field set on entrant points following rained-out qualifying, Hornish started on the inside of the third row and had visions of immediately going to the front, only to spin off the frontstretch into the infield.
"It was a frustrating night. I got a little bit of a decent jump on the start on the row in front of me, tried to pull down to go in front of the guys. As soon as I did, the back end came around," Hornish said. "First time I've done that."
Hornish had to pit for tires and later pitted again to repair front wing damage sustained from the spin. He never returned to the lead lap, but was not a passive participant the rest of the night. His Dallara-Honda was still strong, and later in the race he battled Franchitti to try to unlap himself, to no avail.
"He held me down," said Hornish, who a year ago at Richmond led 212 laps in a dominant win. "Obviously being two laps down, you're trying as hard as you can not to take the leader of the race out. I think that was pushing a little bit more than what was necessary."
Scott Dixon, who finished second for Ganassi Racing, saw it differently: "Sam was trying to pass the leader with 20 laps to go, I didn't see a good reason in any of that. I think he ruined that part of the race, to be honest."
As for Castroneves, he had a clean start and ran in fifth for much of the first half of the race before his disaster struck. He was on pit road when Jeff Simmons crashed on Lap 155, but continued through pit road without making a stop, under the impression that pit road was closed. Yet Indy Racing League president Brian Barnhart said race control had told the team it could make a stop.
Short on fuel, Castroneves came in two laps later for a splash with the pits closed, which was permitted. But when coming in again for full service he passed Franchitti under yellow, drawing a drive-through penalty that when served put him a lap down and out of contention.
Castroneves' race strategist, Penske Performance president Tim Cindric, said it was "ridiculous to lose a race over a call like that." And afterward, Castroneves remained confused by exactly what went wrong.
"I didn't see the lead pack, I was looking for the cars cleaning the track and I just kept going," Castroneves said. "I was really surprised, to be honest, about the penalty."
It was a frustrating night. I got a little bit of a decent jump on the start on the row in front of me, tried to pull down to go in front of the guys. As soon as I did, the back end came around. First time I've done that.
Sam Hornish Jr.
Ten cars ended the race on the lead lap, with Castroneves the first among the lap-down cars in 11th.
Richmond was just the fourth time in three and a half years that the teammates both finished outside the top 10, with the last time coming on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., in late 2005.
Last year was dominant for Team Penske, with eight wins in 14 races and the championship for Hornish. He and Castroneves jockeyed for the points lead most of the year with Ganassi Racing's Dixon and Dan Wheldon making it a four-man race.
The Target cars are in the mix again this year, with Dixon second and Wheldon third in points, but Franchitti and Andretti Green teammate Tony Kanaan (fourth) have replaced the Penske duo as the other two top contenders.
Castroneves won on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., earlier this season and Hornish won last month on the 1.5-mile speed palace at Texas, but the short ovals have been disastrous. Both had rear wings fail at Milwaukee, with the mishap probably costing Castroneves a win. At the new Iowa Speedway both found trouble with Hornish going out early after an accident and Castroneves finishing four laps down after a spin coming out of the pits.
Maybe it's a good thing that there are no more tracks shorter than a mile remaining this season. But whether or not this schedule allows Penske to return to the championship hunt is unclear. The IndyCar Series' increased commitment to right turns has the second-half schedule going to Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma and Belle Isle, and those courses have not been Hornish's strong point during his career. Castroneves is a proven road course winner, but he also has more work to do at 114 points behind Franchitti to put himself in position for a first championship.
There is plenty of ground that needs to be made up, and it's all the more frustrating that it didn't start at Richmond.
"This is one of the places that I really enjoy a lot," Castroneves said. "[Saturday], I didn't enjoy much."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.