Holy Hornish What A Finish
September 8, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
It was the closest finish in Indy Racing League history and gave Hornish a 12-point lead in the IRL championship chase heading into the final race of the season next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
“Al and I talked before the race and we figured if we got toward the end of the race we would try and break away," Hornish said. "It turned out we ran side-by-side. I was pretty sure when I crossed the line that I had gotten him because I could see his front wing behind the front of mine.”
Hornish and Unser ran side-by-side in the final sector of the race – nearly 30 laps – a time that Hornish later described as a “high speed pace lap”. And behind the leaders a pack of contenders swapped positions, sometimes running three abreast in a fight to be at the right place at the right time.
“It was one of the most exciting races I have ever been in my life,” Unser said. “I honestly thought I won the race, I thought I had him, it was that close. We pinched it a little too much coming into three (on the last lap) and that could have been, the difference.
"I had plenty of racing room, Sam was excellent about that, we ran hard, we ran clean ... it was one of the most excellent races I have ever been in."
Buddy Lazier finished third to tie his season best followed by Helio Castroneves, Eddie Cheever Jr., Felipe Giaffone, Scott Sharp, Vitro Meira, Buddy Rice, and Dan Wheldon.
It was good showing for Meira, Rice, and Wheldon, three rookies who made an impressive show of keeping up with Hornish and the rest of the crowd before fading back into the pack at the end of the race. In fact Rice, who led for 22-laps, may have been a factor in the final laps if not for overshooting his pit stall on the final stop of the race.
The real excitement, however, came from Hornish and Unser whose late race battle put an exclamation point on an already ultra competitive IRL season.
“In the Indy cars we are running out there over 220-plus miles an hour,” said Unser. “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.
“You know, there’s fenders on those cars down south for a reason, and that’s to rub each other. What we do here is close wheel-to-wheel racing, a non-contact sport so that we can find out who the best man is and not run into each other and have a demo derby.”
The win extended Hornish’s lead in the IRL championship to 12 points over Castroneves, who had a long afternoon fighting his way from a 21st starting position all the way to the top before eventually ending up in the 4th position. By finishing sixth, Giaffone is 68 points off the leader and is no longer in contention for the championship.
“I owe this finish to great work by my Marlboro Team Penske crew,” said Castroneves, who led eight laps in the race. “If it weren’t for them I would have finished much further back. The car was handling really well in traffic and I was flat out, but we just didn’t have what it took to win. The key thing is that we are still in the championship hunt going into the last race at Texas.”
Castroneves's teammate, and fellow championship contender, Gil de Ferran did not fare so well Sunday, crashing hard into the turn-2 wall on Lap 52. De Ferran, who is now 38 points behind Hornish in the driver's standings, was extracted from his car by the IRL safety team and eventually airlifted to St. James Hospital in Olympia Fields, Ill. with a concussion. He is reported to be awake, alert, and stable.
IRL Medical Director Dr. Henry Bock will determine later this week if de Ferren can race in Texas next weekend.
As for the defending IRL champion, Hornish may be the favorite heading into next weekend’s event. The Panther Pennzoil Team has won the previous two fall races at Texas, while Castroneves and de Ferran have only raced their once - in June. Castroneves finished fourth at Texas in June and de Ferren finished 16th.
“We had a really good car there in the June race and had a problem,” said Hornish, who finished 18th in the June race after crashing on Lap 126. “Everything should work out fairly well at Texas. I don’t feel any pressure. I know all I have to do is go out there and drive the car and if I do the right thing that’s good and if I don’t then I can think about it until March. We’ll just continue to keep fighting and do the best we can.”
The battle for the championship comes to a conclusion next weekend at the Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.