No Concrete Title Contenders

The chase for the Indy Racing League title appeared to be a three-car race between Marlboro Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran and Pennzoil Panther Racing's Sam Hornish Jr. earlier this year.

Not anymore.

Just 56 points - about one race worth of points - separate leader Castroneves from fourth-place Felipe Giaffone in the IRL standings entering the Firestone Indy 200 on July 20 at Nashville Superspeedway. And don't be surprised if more drivers enter this interesting fray after the IRL's second annual stop at the 1.33-mile concrete track.

The 200-lap race starts at 7:30 p.m. (CDT) and will be televised live on ESPN2. It's the 10th of 15 races on the IRL schedule in 2002 and the last of three night races this season.

The race at the top of the championship standings has tightened considerably in the last month.

Castroneves jumped to a 44-point lead over second-place de Ferran and a 56-point gap over third-place Hornish after the Casino Magic 500 on June 8 at Texas Motor Speedway. But de Ferran and Hornish closed the gap by earning respective victories in the next two races, at Pikes Peak International Raceway on June 16 and at Richmond International Raceway on June 29.

Then Hornish finished second to Airton Daré at the last event, the Ameristar Casino Indy 200 on July 7 at Kansas Speedway, to pull even closer to the top two.

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves now leads de Ferran, 315-307, entering Nashville. Hornish is third at 296 in the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara, helped by three consecutive top-three finishes. Hornish has three victories this year, while Castroneves has won twice in the No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara and de Ferran once in the No. 6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara.

Nashville is a strong track for Hornish, who finished sixth at this event last season after leading a race-high 86 laps. This will be the first race at Nashville for Castroneves and de Ferran, who moved to the IRL full time with Marlboro Team Penske this season.

Meanwhile, Giaffone has used consistency to pull to within 56 points of leader Castroneves in his No. 21 Hollywood Mo Nunn Racing G Force.

2001 IRL Rookie of the Year Giaffone is winless this season but has recorded seven consecutive top-six finishes entering this event.

Daré also could enter the title mix in the No. 14 Harrah's owned by four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt.

2000 IRL Rookie of the Year Daré has 226 points, 89 behind Castroneves. But nothing sparks a championship run like a victory, and Daré's win at Kansas was his first in the IRL and the first for Foyt's team in Indy Racing since Kenny Brack won the 1999 Indianapolis 500.

Foyt's team also has shown it can stay on a winning roll. Brack earned a record three consecutive victories in the summer of 1998 en route to the championship that season.

While it might be too late for rookie Tomas Scheckter to win the championship this year, he could play a major role in the chase.

Scheckter is winless despite leading 321 laps this year in the No. 52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara, third on the season list behind de Ferran with 508 and Hornish with 361. But he has seen two potential victories evaporate late in the race in the last month, as clutch failure ended his night while leading last month at Texas and a tire problem caused him to crash while leading with nine laps remaining July 7 at Kansas.

There's arguably no driver in Indy Racing right now closer to his first win than Scheckter, and that elusive first win could happen at Nashville.

Defending event champion Buddy Lazier, like Scheckter, has endured a tough start to the season in his No. 91 Coors Light/Life Fitness/Tae-Bo/Delta Faucet Dallara. He is a disappointing 10th in the season point standings with a best finish of seventh.

But 2000 IRL champion and 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Lazier could return to the front at Nashville, where he led 71 of 200 laps last year en route to victory.

There's also the potential for a few surprises at Nashville due to its unique concrete track surface. It's the only all-concrete oval on the IRL schedule, and cars require different setups on concrete. Tire wear also is different than on asphalt, posing a challenge to race teams.

Last year, 1998 Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Billy Boat earned a season-best finish of second behind Lazier at Nashville, the home of his primary sponsor, CURB Records. 1999 Indianapolis 500 Bank One Rookie of the Year Robby McGehee also recorded a season-best finish of fourth.

Regardless of who wins the race, expect a tight finish. Twenty-three of the 65 events in IRL history since 1996 have produced a margin of victory of less than one second, including three races this season.

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