Chicago Key To Point Race

Three. One. Eight.

No those aren't the winning lottery numbers, but they do add up to a giant payday for someone. Three drivers. The top two separated by a point. All three only eight points apart.

After 13 races, 2,700 laps and 3,853.5 miles of intense racing this season in the Indy Racing League, just one point separates series leader Helio Castroneves from second-place Gil de Ferran, his Marlboro Team Penske teammate. Defending IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. is third in the standings, just eight points behind de Ferran.

The Indy Racing League championship race will continue to rage at the Delphi Indy 300 on Sept. 8 at Chicagoland Speedway, the next-to-last stop on the 15-race schedule this season. The 200-lap race on the 1.5-mile, D-shaped oval starts at noon (CDT) and will be televised live on ABC.

Four drivers – Castroneves, de Ferran, Hornish and fourth-place Felipe Giaffone – remain mathematically eligible for the title at the second annual IRL event at the state-of-the-art Chicagoland track.

It’s quite a contrast from the inaugural IRL race at Chicagoland last September, during which Hornish clinched his first Indy Racing championship. There will be no coronation ceremony at this event, only the continuation of an epic struggle in the closest title race in major worldwide motorsports.

The IRL’s “big three” has dominated the top of the point standings all season, but none of the three can keep a grip on the top.

Castroneves, de Ferran and Hornish have occupied the top three spots in the point standings since the season-opening event in March at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But the points lead has changed hands four times in the last nine races, with Castroneves taking over from Hornish after finishing second to Marlboro Team Penske teammate de Ferran Aug. 25 at Kentucky Speedway. Hornish fell to third after finishing fifth in the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther at Kentucky.

With that kind of close, fluid competition atop the standings, it’s hard to pinpoint many trends entering the Delphi Indy 300.

Recent championship experience is a push. Pennzoil Panther Racing won the IRL title last year with Hornish, while de Ferran won the CART championship in 2000 and 2001 with Marlboro Team Penske.

But Hornish does hold a slight statistical advantage over Marlboro Team Penske’s dynamic duo at tracks of 1.5 miles and longer. The final two races of the season both take place on 1.5-mile ovals, at Chicagoland and Sept. 15 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Two of Hornish’s three victories have come on tracks of 1.5 miles or longer, the opener in March at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami track and also in March at the 2-mile California Speedway. But two of Hornish’s three finishes outside the top 10 this year have come on “big” tracks, 25th in May at Indianapolis and 18th in June at Texas.

Castroneves has a victory in March on a 1-mile oval at Phoenix and in May at the legendary 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske.

Both of de Ferran’s victories have come on “short” tracks, in June on the 1-mile Pikes Peak International Raceway and Aug. 25 at the 1.25-mile Gateway International Raceway in the No. 6 Marlboro Team Penske. And his only finishes outside the top 10 this season have come on 1.5-mile ovals, 16th in June at Texas and 21st in August at Kentucky.

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves has been the most consistent of the “big three” on 1.5-mile tracks, with four top-five finishes in as many starts.

Hornish also has successful racing experience at Chicagoland, finishing second last year to seal the IRL title and $1-million bonus awarded to the series champion.

Castroneves only has raced at Chicagoland in a stock car, finishing third in the True Value IROC event in July. de Ferran never has raced at Chicagoland, as Marlboro Team Penske is competing full time in the IRL for the first time this year.

Hornish’s slight edge on larger tracks isn’t lost on Marlboro Team Penske, which is planning to test before this event to find extra secrets of speed.

“We have not been as fast on the big tracks,” said Marlboro Team Penske owner Roger Penske after de Ferran’s victory at Gateway. “For some reason, we seem not to be able to sustain some of the speed as the other cars. That's one thing we haven't been able to figure out since we went to Texas the first time.

“There have been some cars running pretty quick. We need those cars to run and maybe take points away. Our key for the next two races is reliability and not getting in trouble.”

There are plenty of other cars running fast in the IRL this season. In fact, there have been nine different winners in 13 IRL races this season, tying a league record set in the 1996-97 season. Six of those winners have recorded their first career IRL victory this season.

Giaffone was one of those first-time winners, on Aug. 11 at Kentucky, and he is fourth in the series standings in the No. 21 Hollywood Mo Nunn Racing G Force, 46 points behind leader Castroneves. But Giaffone will need help – low finishes by the top three drivers – if he is to stay in contention for the championship after finishing 21st on Aug. 25 at Gateway due to engine failure.

Other drivers who could contend for victory at Chicago include Alex Barron, fifth in points in the No. 44 Rayovac Blair Racing.

A driver making his IRL debut also could contend for victory and help Hornish’s cause.

Dan Wheldon will drive the No. 15 Pennzoil Panther as Hornish’s teammate, giving Pennzoil Panther Racing an equal number of cars as Marlboro Team Penske for the first time this season. Wheldon won the 1999 U.S. F2000 championship, was second overall and Rookie of the Year in Toyota Atlantic in 2000 and was second overall and Rookie of the Year in Indy Lights in 2001.

The Infiniti brigade also should be a factor in the Delphi Indy 300, as Infiniti engines have flexed plenty of muscular power on longer tracks this season. So the leaders of the Infiniti camp, Red Bull Cheever Racing teammates Eddie Cheever Jr. and Buddy Rice, and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing teammates Robbie Buhl and Sarah Fisher, could be threats for victory at Chicagoland. Raul Boesel, Billy Boat and Laurent Redon also will use Infiniti power.

The new Indy Racing League development series, the Indy Racing Infiniti Pro Series, will race at Chicagoland for the first time.

A.J. Foyt IV, grandson of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt, has won three of the first five races and led the point standings for the entire season in the No. 14 Harrah’s/A.J. Foyt Racing.

But Foyt opened the proverbial door for his closest pursuers in the title chase after finishing ninth Aug. 25 at Gateway. That trimmed his points lead to 40 over second-place Ed Carpenter. Arie Luyendyk Jr., son of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, is third, 42 points behind Foyt.

Foyt needs a 52-point lead after this event to clinch the championship.

And Foyt, 18, can play a trump card at Chicago. No Infiniti Pro Series team has been better on tracks of 1.5 miles or longer this season than A.J. Foyt Racing. Foyt’s three victories have come on the 1.5-mile ovals at Kansas and Kentucky, and the 2-mile oval at Michigan.

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