The Indy Racing League "Belterra Casino Indy 300" at Kentucky Speedway will help separate the contenders from the pretenders when it begins a six-race run toward the 2004 IndyCar Series championship on August 15.

The race is the first of a critical three-race August stretch that includes events in Pikes Peak, Colo., and Nazareth, Pa. Series leader Tony Kanaan believes the combined results from the three consecutive races will play an important role in deciding which driver will earn the series crown.

"After the three races coming up, we are going to have a decision as to who is in for the championship and who is not," Kanaan said during a test today at Kentucky Speedway. "I'm taking every race - Kentucky, Pikes Peak and Nazareth - as a championship race. After that, we can have a bit of break and hopefully win the championship."

The Andretti-Green driver will arrive at "The Belterra Casino Indy 300" with a 57-point lead over his closest pursuer, Indianapolis 500 winner and Rahal-Letterman Racing rival Buddy Rice.

"It's been a great year and it's very competitive as well," said Kanaan, driver of the No. 11 7-11 Dallara/Honda/Firestone. "We have a big lead right now and Buddy is closing up on us, so it's going to be really exciting when we get here for this next race. We need to keep the consistency. That's the key, that's what's keeping me in front of the championship right now."

Consistency has helped Kanaan produce three wins and three second-place finishes during his span of nine consecutive top-five and 10 straight top-10 performances through 10 events this season.

A similar consistency also has been evident in the Andretti-Green teams of drivers Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta and Dario Franchitti. All but Herta have visited Victory Circle this season and the team will enter "The Belterra Casino Indy 300" with Whledon third in the championship standings, Franchitti in sixth and Herta in eighth.

"The team atmosphere is very good," Kanaan said. "I think we're doing a great job. We like each other a lot and I think that's helped us on the race weekends, too. We've won six out of the 10 races already and it's just been awesome."

The efforts of Rice and his teammate, Vitor Meira, also have been awesome this season.

In addition to his May win in Indianapolis, Ind., Rice has collected victories in two of his past four starts while Meira has generated two second-place and two fifth-place finishes in his past five events.

Making their recent accomplishments even sweeter is the fact that both lost their previous series seats at the end of last season.

"Buddy and I worked together a little bit last year when he was with Cheever and I was with Menards," Meira said. "Suddenly, by the end of last year, we were both out of a job. Now, we are both with this great team and it's a big turnaround."

Rice joined Rahal Letterman full-time to substitute for Kenny Brack, who is taking this season to recover from serious injuries sustained in a crash in the 2003 series season finale at Texas Motor Speedway. Meira came to the team for the third race of the season when Bobby Rahal decided to add a second series entry.

"I lost the ride with Menards and was without one until after Phoenix," Meira said. "On race weekend in Phoenix, (CEO) Scott Roembke and Mr. Rahal called me and asked me to meet them in Columbus (Ohio). I went there as quick as I could because Rahal-Letterman is a top team and joining it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. From that point on, everything just got better, better and better."

The reunited teammates showed what they are capable of producing at Kansas Speedway on July 4 when Meira started from the pole in his No. 17 Team Centrix G-Force/Honda/Firestone but was nipped by Rice and his No. 15 Pioneer Argent G-Force/Honda/Firestone by .0051 of a second at finish line in the second-closest race in IndyCar Series history. "As an individual, I wanted to win, but from the team point of view it was great," Meira said. "Finishing that close, being one-two, and winning the pole is an optimal weekend for any team.

"We've had a lot of opportunities to repeat that and we will have more throughout the end of the championship if we keep working. Honda is the best engine out there, it's pretty clear to everybody. If we keep up our momentum and teamwork, there's no reason we shouldn't continue to have results like that."

While out of the championship hunt due to his late start to the season, Meira still views "Belterra Casino Indy 300" as an important starting point to a solid stretch run that may include a Rahal-Letterman championship. "This race is really important. It's the first race of three races that will decide who is in the championship because it's hard to make improvements and differences in the car (during a stretch of three consecutive races). After that, it slows down a little. I came in late, but I think Rahal-Letterman has a great chance with Buddy because we are just now picking up momentum and growing as a team."

~ Kentucky Speedway ~