Commentary

Castroneves hoping to reel in red-hot Dixon at Kentucky

Can anyone catch Scott Dixon? Not likely. But Helio Castroneves will give it his best shot Saturday at Kentucky Speedway, writes John Schwarb.

Updated: August 8, 2008, 7:29 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

SPARTA, Ky. -- Statistically speaking, six drivers are still eligible to win the IndyCar Series championship. But let's be realistic: The only ones in the conversation are points leader Scott Dixon of Target Ganassi Racing and Team Penske's Helio Castroneves.

Let's be realistic again: Saturday's Meijer Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and ESPN360.com) isn't a likely place where the 65-point gap between the frontrunners will shrink.

Dixon, who won two weeks ago at Edmonton for his second win in three starts and fifth overall, has been almost flawless on ovals this season, especially the intermediates. He won at 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami to start the year, won at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway in June and again on the 1.33-mile concrete track at Nashville.

Kentucky Speedway is another 1.5-mile intermediate, less steep than the likes of Homestead and Texas but faster, with speeds topping 220 mph.

"Kentucky is a tough track to master because it's very bumpy and very fast. There is hardly any banking, so it's always a challenge to make sure we get the right setup," Castroneves said. "Historically, this hasn't been one of my stronger tracks."

Castroneves, still looking for his first win this season, has an average finish of 6.5 at Kentucky in six starts. Last year, he finished ninth, one lap down.

Dixon has had off days at Kentucky, but the last one was in 2005 when he was driving a Panoz-Toyota. The last two years he has finished second, and in practice Friday he showed no signs that he wouldn't match or better that effort come race time, as his car led both sessions as the only Dallara-Honda at 220 mph.

If Dixon's not the top choice, his teammate might be. Dan Wheldon won't be driving a Target red car at Kentucky (a new chassis in No. 10 Polaroid black livery is on tap), but he should show the same form that has found eight top-four finishes on ovals this season, including wins at Kansas and Iowa.

Oddly, the only previous Kentucky champion in the field is 2007 winner Tony Kanaan, armed with a five-year contract extension from Andretti Green Racing signed Thursday. The 2004 series champion is fourth in points, 118 behind Dixon but just three points behind third-place Wheldon. If Danica Patrick's crash during practice Friday is the extent of the trouble the embattled AGR team will have this weekend, perhaps Kanaan can win for the second time this season.

But all eyes will first look for Dixon in the No. 9, and they shouldn't have to look far. Any roadblocks toward his second IndyCar Series championship are more likely to come in subsequent races at Sonoma, Calif., and at Belle Isle in Detroit. Dixon's only finishes outside the top four were on road/street courses at St. Petersburg (22nd with mechanical failure) and Watkins Glen, N.Y., (11th). Then again, he is the defending champ at Sonoma.

Life is good, and Kentucky shouldn't change things.

"At this point, I think a 65-point lead is pretty strong. We just have to keep on it for the next four races," Dixon said.

Speedway officials announced an advance sellout of 66,089, the first full house since Kentucky began hosting the IndyCar Series in 2001. Standing-room only tickets will go on sale before the race.

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

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