Nazareth Farewell To Wheldon

NAZARETH, Pa. – Michael Andretti drove the three miles north from Nazareth Speedway to his home with his spirits lifted. An IRL IndyCar Series-first sweep of the top three positions in the Firestone Indy 225 on Aug. 29 tempered his melancholy mood about the demise of his family’s home track.

Andretti won the first Indy-style car race at the reincarnated facility in 1987 as a driver and won the last at the one-mile tri-oval as a team owner. Dan Wheldon led the final 79 laps and crossed the finish line 3.5553 seconds ahead of Andretti Green Racing teammate Tony Kanaan. Dario Franchitti was third.

“This is the biggest win for me as an owner,” said Andretti, who earlier in the day said it was “a bummer just to think about” the closing of the track by owner International Speedway Corporation. “It’s meant so much to my family, and the people around here won’t realize what they’ve had until it’s gone.”

That’s for another day. After the 100th race in Indy Racing League history, the Andretti Green Racing family celebrated. Kanaan remained first in the IndyCar Series standings with 503 points with three races remaining. Wheldon jumped over Buddy Rice for second, trailing Kanaan by 72 points. Rice, who finished fourth, has 427 points.

“We needed a win for Michael and for Andretti Green Racing,” said Kanaan, who set an IndyCar Series record with his 13th consecutive top-5 finish. “We didn’t just get the win; we got a 1-2-3 in his last race here, so it couldn't be better than that. He asked us to go out and win the race and we did a 1-2-3.”

It was the third victory of the season for Wheldon, the 2003 Bombardier Rookie of the Year, in the No. 26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda/Firestone. He has 10 top-10 finishes in 13 races – combining with his victories to provide the consistent points.

Still, there’s a lot of racing before the champion is crowned.

“Tony is very, very strong,” Wheldon said. “Whatever happens, happens. As long as we try and bring the championship home for Andretti Green Racing and I keep winning as many races as possible, I’ll be happy.”

Wheldon collected his third career victory and eighth this season for Andretti Green Racing courtesy of a quick pit stop and some misfortune in the pits by race leader Sam Hornish Jr. on Lap 146.

After the No. 52 entry of Ed Carpenter made contact with the Turn 2 wall on Lap 142, the leaders heading down pit road on Lap 145. Wheldon beat Kanaan out of the pits by about a foot. Meanwhile, Hornish lost valuable time and track position when he started out of his stall with the fuel hose still attached. As team members, including owner Roger Penske, doused fueler Chris Seaman with water to neutralize the methanol that spurted out of the severed hose, Hornish made his way around the track.

But the left sidepod at the fuel coupling was on fire, and he returned to pit road to have it extinguished by Delphi IRL Safety Team personnel. He also was penalized for the mishap and had to drive down pit road once again. The damage dropped him to last place on the lead lap.

“Every one of (his crew) got me out very, very quickly,” said Wheldon, who completed an Andretti Green Racing sweep of ovals of one mile or less this season. “I even struggled to get around (Adrian) Fernandez’s tire, and they still managed to get me out in the lead. The credit for them goes to those guys.”

Wheldon also won at the 0.75-mile Richmond International Raceway, Kanaan won at the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, and Franchitti won at The Milwuakee Mile and Pikes Peak International Raceway.

“It’s been pretty good,” said Franchitti, who posted his third consecutive top-10 finish in his first full IndyCar Series season. “We didn’t quite have enough for Tony and Dan at the end there, but to get a 1-2-3 for this man here (Andretti) it’s tremendous.”

Plans are to move sections of the Nazareth Speedway grandstand to Watkins Glen International Raceway, another International Speedway Corp. property where the IndyCar Series will compete for the first time in September 2005. The track, which made its debut in 1987 after Penske Motorsports Inc. purchased it in bankruptcy court, potentially will be leased for motorsports testing.

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