Unser Win Sweet Redemption
June 7, 2003 | 12:51 A.M. EST
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Unser lost this race by .0111 of a second last year to Jeff Ward after being passed just yards from the finish line. But Unser held off Kanaan on a one-lap showdown after a Lap 199 restart and earned his first victory of the season in the No. 31 Corteco Dallara. Tora Takagi finished third.
"I tell you, this is great,” Unser said. "I was real worried about it, cause we thought we had a pretty good lead and I know these finishes. We’ve lost this thing by too close of a margin.”
The win also was a personal victory for Unser, who underwent successful treatment for an alcohol problem last summer. He climbed to second in the standings with the victory, 26 points behind Kanaan.
“It just means everything,” Unser said. "What can I say? You work hard off the track as much as you do on, and the dividends paid."
Unser averaged 168.214 mph and earned $110,900 for his third career IRL IndyCar Series victory and first win since August 2001. He led 54 of 200 laps.
On the final-lap restart, series points leader Kanaan drove his No. 11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara above and alongside Unser in Turn 1, setting up what could have been another heartbreaking, last-lap loss for Unser at Texas.
But Unser pulled ahead toward the end of the backstretch of the 1.5-mile oval, kept about a car-length margin in Turns 3 and 4 and maintained that distance to the finish before an estimated crowd of 92,000 on their feet for another thrilling IndyCar Series finish at TMS.
“Well, we had the restart and I tried to jump him,” Unser said of Kanaan. “Tony, he’s sharp on those restarts, and he came around me on the outside of Turn 2. I was just trying to get as close to him as possible. My Toyota engine outperformed that Honda, and we came in just barely. When we pulled it in there at the finish, we were all alone.”
This was the eighth time in 12 IndyCar Series races at Texas with a finishing margin of less than one second. The average margin of finish in the last four IndyCar Series races at the high-banked oval is .0301 of a second.
“Al did a great job; it was a great restart,” Kanaan said. “(IRL Senior Vice President of Racing Operations) Brian (Barnhart) said in the drivers’ meeting that the last four wins came from the outside. I went to the outside, and it didn't work this time.
“The whole 7-Eleven team did a great job. A lot of close calls out there tonight. I think we need to think and talk to some drivers. We need to calm down.”
Takagi was one of the three players in an accident that set up the one-lap chase for victory between Unser and Kanaan.
On Lap 191, Takagi made a strong run at Scott Sharp and Felipe Giaffone, running side-by-side ahead of him, exiting Turn 2. Takagi dove low entering Turn 3 in an attempt to pass Sharp and Giaffone, but the right front wheel of Takagi’s No. 12 Pioneer Mo Nunn Racing Panoz G Force hit the left sidepod of Sharp’s No. 8 Delphi Dallara.
1996 series co-champion Sharp then hit the No. 21 Hollywood Mo Nunn Racing Panoz G Force of Giaffone, running above him, in a domino effect. Sharp and Giaffone hit the outside retaining wall and were out of the race while Takagi deftly saved his car from losing control on the apron and sped away.
“I was inside and down,” Takagi said. “I was forced below the white line with contact. Scott came down, and there was no place to go.”
Said Sharp: “Felipe got on the outside of me, and we had a good battle going side by side. Tora dove down on the inside, and I was thinking, ‘This is not good,’ because I knew how much room was there, and you get on the apron here and it just shoots you up the track.
“He shot up into my sidepod, and I tried to squeeze it somehow. But there was nowhere to go, and Tora hit me, and I got into Felipe. You can’t play bumper cars at 220 mph.”
Unser led from Laps 150-186, building a cushion of 4.3 seconds by Lap 173. But Kanaan passed him for the lead on Lap 187 with an outside move in Turn 4. But Unser regained the lead at the start-finish line on the next lap and never trailed thereafter.
MBNA Pole winner Tomas Scheckter appeared to be the only match on track for Unser. Scheckter led 145 of the first 175 laps in the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Panoz G Force.
But Scheckter lost contact with the leaders when he was assessed a drive-through penalty for leaving the pits with the fuel hose connected during his final stop on Lap 150. Ventman Andy Natalie caught fire during the miscue, but it was extinguished immediately. Natalie was unhurt.
Scheckter’s chances to charge toward Unser then ended when he crashed hard into the Turn 2 wall on Lap 175. Sparks shot from the bottom of the car, indicating possible mechanical failure, before Scheckter careened toward the wall. He was unhurt.
2003 Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran finished eighth in the No. 6 Marlboro Team Penske Panoz G Force.
In off-track news, Airton Dare will be transferred Sunday to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis for further treatment. He underwent surgery Thursday night at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas for a broken upper right arm and broken upper right leg suffered in a practice crash Thursday.
The next IRL IndyCar Series race is the Honda Indy 225 on Sunday, June 15 at Pikes Peak International Raceway.