IRL Race Heats Up

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The IRL IndyCar Series is reaching the halfway point of its 16-race 2003 season with the Kansas Indy 300 on July 6 at Kansas Speedway, and there are a few trends that can be pinpointed easily.

Scott Dixon is the hottest driver in the series, having won the last two races, on June 15 at Pikes Peak and June 28 at Richmond in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Panoz G Force. He could become only the second driver to win three consecutive IndyCar Series events, matching the feat set by Kenny Brack en route to winning the 1998 series title.

Series points leader Tony Kanaan is a model of consistency. Kanaan has led at least one lap in six of seven races this season in the No. 11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara and has recorded six top-five finishes in seven starts.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing is arguably the leading team in the series right now, with Dixon the only driver to earn more than one victory this season. He has three victories. Dixon and teammate Tomas Scheckter have combined to lead 702 of 1,431 laps this season, 49 percent of the laps turned in the series.

Defending series champion Sam Hornish Jr. won’t go down without a fight. Hornish put in two stirring drives in June to finish fifth at Pikes Peak and fourth at Richmond despite less power in his No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara compared to drivers with Toyota and Honda engines. Hornish is eighth in the series standings, 93 points behind Kanaan.

But the one trend that’s most obvious entering the third annual trip for the IndyCar Series to Kansas Speedway is that no driver has a clear claim to the series title. Just 27 points separate leader Kanaan and second-place Dixon, with only 60 points separating the top six drivers.

Combine the searing championship chase and the recent series trends, and the Kansas Indy 300 figures to be one of the most interesting races of the season. The race starts at noon (CDT) Sunday, July 6 and will be broadcast live by ABC and the IMS Radio Network.

The Kansas Indy 300 marks a return to a 1.5-mile oval, the most frequently raced circuit length in the series. Seven of the 16 races in the IndyCar Series in 2003 take place on 1.5-mile ovals, with three – Homestead-Miami Speedway, Twin Ring Motegi and Texas Motor Speedway – already completed.

A glance at the results from those races could help predict which drivers and teams will be strong at Kansas.

Only one driver has posted a top-10 finish at each of the races on 1.5-mile ovals this season –Hornish. He was 10th in March at Homestead-Miami, sixth in April at Twin Ring Motegi and 10th in June at Texas.

Hornish also has fared well in the past at Kansas, finishing second each of the last two years.

A handful of other drivers besides Hornish has showed plenty of strength on 1.5-mile ovals this season, starting with Kanaan and Dixon.

Kanaan finished fourth at Homestead-Miami and second at Texas. He and Dixon crashed while dueling for the lead late in the race at Motegi.

Dixon won at Homestead-Miami and finished sixth at Texas. His teammate, Scheckter, led 36 laps at Motegi and 145 laps at Texas but crashed late in both races in the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Panoz G Force.

Kelley Racing also has been a strong team on 1.5-mile ovals this season.

1996 series co-champion Scott Sharp finished fifth at Homestead-Miami in the No. 8 Delphi Dallara, won at Motegi and was jousting for third at Texas when he was eliminated in a late accident with Felipe Giaffone and Tora Takagi. His teammate, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., finished fifth at Motegi and won at Texas in the No. 31 Corteco Dallara after a stirring final-lap race with Kanaan.

And don’t count out powerful Marlboro Team Penske, which will make its 1,000 start in Indy-style racing at this event, with Indianapolis 500 champions Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran behind the wheel.

Castroneves and de Ferran have said 1.5-mile ovals are the team’s weak spot. But that’s just a sign of the team’s exacting standards more than a realistic picture of a struggle. Most teams would love to have Penske’s performance on 1.5-mile tracks.

Castroneves finished third at Homestead-Miami in the No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara and seventh at Texas. A 22nd-place finish at Motegi after an early accident is the only blemish.

De Ferran finished second at Homestead and eighth at Texas in the No. 6 Marlboro Team Penske entry. He missed the Motegi race due to injuries suffered in the race in March at Phoenix.

Airton Dare will not return to defend his race title with A.J. Foyt Racing after suffering a broken right leg and broken right arm in a crash during practice last month at Texas. But the team owned by four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt will field a driver with winning experience at Kansas, rookie A.J. Foyt IV.



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