Close Finishes The Norm
September 10, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
No doubt Indy Racing fans have said those words across the country after seeing one of the 24 Indy Racing League events with a winning margin of less than one second. And no doubt the fans leaving Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 8 were uttering the same line after watching Sam Hornish Jr. hold off Al Unser Jr. by .0024 of a second to win the Delphi Indy 300.
Hornish and Unser put on a masterful display of driving over the final 30 laps of the 200-lap event. For the final 21 laps, they drove side by side, inches apart, and swapped the lead nine times.
Perhaps swapped isn't even the correct term. Unser was on the low side of the track in the No. 7 Corteco/Bryant Dallara, and Hornish was on the high side in the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara. They stayed that way for 21 laps, one inching ahead of the other at the start/finish line until Hornish claimed the victory on Lap 200. Neither driver ever tucked in behind.
It was a finish that has almost become expected in Indy Racing League competition. That's because 26 of the 70 races in Indy Racing League history have featured margins of victory of less than one second, including seven of the 14 races in 2002. The average margin of victory in the 14 Indy Racing events this season has been .8708 of a second.
No tracks have produced close IRL racing this season like 1.5-mile ovals. Chicagoland Speedway was the fifth 1.5-mile oval on which the IRL raced this season. Excluding the season opener at Homestead-Miami, which finished under caution, the largest margin of victory on a 1.5-mile track this season has been .1741 of a second when Airton Dare defeated Hornish in July at Kansas. The combined margin of victory at the four events at 1.5-mile tracks that have finished under green this season is .2808 of a second, or an average of .0702 of a second.
"These races keep getting closer and closer, and pretty soon I'm not going to be able to tell the difference," Hornish said after winning at Chicagoland.
Unser, who now has the distinction of placing second in the two closest finishes in Indy Racing League history, said it was one of the best races in which he has competed during his illustrious, 20-year Indy-style career.
"In the Indy cars, we are running out there over 220-plus miles an hour," Unser said. "Me and Sam Hornish went around there for the last 25, 30 laps, never touched each other one bit, and that was the closest wheel-to-wheel racing that I think you'll ever see in the country today."
The racing was close throughout the field. In fact, less than 1.150 seconds separated the 11 cars on the lead lap at the end of the Delphi Indy 300.
Two cars pay off for Panther: Pennzoil Panther Racing's initial two-car effort this season was successful as Sam Hornish Jr. won the Delphi Indy 300 and his rookie teammate, Dan Wheldon, finished 10th in his Indy Racing League debut despite making slight contact with Robbie Buhl in Turn 2 on Lap 113.
"It's not what I would have liked, but it was a complete learning experience," Wheldon said. "I actually think we would have been a little better off had I not clipped the back of Robbie Buhl. From that moment on, I could never get the balance to how I wanted it."
Buddy's back on track: Buddy Lazier has eight career IRL victories, more than any other driver. But the 2002 season has not been kind to Lazier and his Hemelgarn Racing team as they are winless and ninth in the point standings.
But after finishing outside the top five in the first 11 races of the season, Lazier has finished third in two of the last three races in the No. 91 Coors Light/Life Fitness/Tae-Bo/Delta Faucet Dallara, at Kentucky and Chicagoland. While Sam Hornish Jr. defeated Al Unser Jr. by .0024 of a second at Chicago, Lazier was in third, only .0596 of a second behind Hornish.
"My guys did a super job, giving lightning-fast pit stops," 2000 IRL champion Lazier said. "That's the direction we want to go. We've had not the season we're looking for, but this is a good way to start bringing it back to where we want it to be, toward the front. So, good day for us."
Arie's tough luck continues: At Chicagoland, Aaron Fike became the fourth driver to win in Indy Racing Infiniti Pro Series competition this season. Unfortunately for Arie Luyendyk Jr., he has finished second behind each of those four drivers.
Luyendyk, son of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, has come home in the runner-up spot at Nashville, behind Cory Witherill; at Michigan, behind A.J. Foyt IV; at Gateway, behind Ryan Hampton; and at Chicagoland, behind Fike.
"I don't know," Luyendyk said. "I've tried everything. This is probably the first second place where I've ever been disappointed after a race. I led so many laps today and thought I had it after that restart, but Aaron's car was definitely working good on the high side, and he surprised me a little bit.
"It's a little frustrating, but it's good for the championship and closing in on Foyt, and hopefully we can win this thing."
Foyt, a Texas native, has 238 points in the No. 14 Harrah's/A.J. Foyt Racing Dallara, while Luyendyk is second, 28 points behind in the No. 5 Luyendyk Racing entry. Ed Carpenter is mathematically eligible for the championship, with 196 points in the No. 2 Menards/Jack K. Elrod Co./Futaba/Delphi entry.
Foyt will clinch the inaugural Infiniti Pro Series championship by finishing eighth or better in the season-ending BG Products 100 on Sept. 14 at his home track, Texas Motor Speedway.