Indy Racing League IndyCar and Indy Pro Series drivers opened the fourth and final weekend of the 2006 Kentucky Speedway race season today by putting their high-speed race machines through their paces in practice sessions.

The top three drivers in the IRL IndyCar Series, leader Helio Castroneves, second-place driver Sam Hornish, Jr., and Dan Wheldon remained true to form by running at the top of the speed charts during two series practice sessions this afternoon.

Series leader Helio Castroneves was second-quickest in both session with 218.324-mph (24.4041 seconds) and 218.561-mph (24.3776 seconds) laps while his Penske Racing teammate Hornish, Jr., completed the third-fastest laps in both sessions with 217.735-mph (24.4701 seconds) and 217.910-mph (24.4505 seconds) efforts.

"The car is very good and I'm very happy with the way it's running," said Castroneves, who owns three fifth-place finishes through four career Kentucky Speedway starts. "The track is very smooth, very nice and fantastic. I've been so close to winning here so many years. Maybe this year will be our year. There's always a learning curve and today I learned something I didn't know in the past.

"I've gotten to the point where I want to get first and first, I don't care about points. I want to win all the races. That's obviously a big task, but hopefully it's not impossible. I changed a bit of mentality at Milwaukee after realizing you can get taken out by someone else's mistakes. I drove the race in Michigan like it was the last race of the championship and it worked. If it works, you don't change it."

Wheldon, the defending IRL IndyCar Series champion who led 104 race laps last season at Kentucky Speedway before posting his second straight third-place finish at the track, led 19 drivers in the first series practice session with a 218.612-mph (24.3720 seconds) lap and was fourth-quickest in the second session with a 217.718-mph (24.4720 seconds) circuit.

"The car is not too bad. Certainly right now, it was a little off Penske's pace, but at the same time, we're a little better than we were at Michigan," Wheldon said.

"We'll just see what we got. I don't think qualifying is important at all here. At the same time, it's always good because to have a fast car. Right now, we have something to get close to the pole. I think everybody at Chip Ganassi Racing is determined to make this championship go down to the wire."

Wheldon's teammate, Scott Dixon, who is currently fourth in the series standings, helped prove that statement to be accurate by leading the final practice session with a 218.777-mph (24.3536 seconds) lap.

The top practice speeds of the afternoon were ahead of Danica Patrick's top 217.516 mph (24.4947 seconds) practice lap that earned her the 2005 Kentucky Speedway pole award, but well off Sarah Fisher's series track record 221.390-mph (24.0661 seconds) performance from 2003. Fisher was 17th overall in today's sessions with a 215.429-mph (24.7321 seconds) lap and Patrick drove in 14th overall with a 215.738-mph (24.6966 seconds) circuit. Reigning series champ Wade Cunningham topped the speed chart in both IRL Indy Pro Series sessions. He led the first practice session with a 191.350-mph (27.8442 seconds) lap and the second with a 190.261-mph (28.0036 seconds) performance. Both laps have him on pace to seriously threaten the series track-best qualifying mark of 190.398 mph (27.9835 seconds) set by Travis Gregg in 2004.

Cunningham will look to sustain his momentum during qualifying this afternoon at 3:30 p.m. He is in pursuit of his second front-row start at Kentucky Speedway and on pace to become the third pole award winner to take a series win at the track through four events.

"We have a good base car. We've stayed in the car we tested in Iowa last week so it's race fit and rolled off the trailer well," Cunningham said. "It's not as if you win the pole, you're going to win the race this year. It's an advantage, but not a guarantee. I won the pole for the last two races, had troubles and haven't won. It's not easy to win. I know what the racing is like here and how it will unfold. Being this late in the season, (Race 9 of 12) the rookies have been able to catch up and are more confident."

The driver from New Zealand who stands five-foot-five-inches tall, said his stature may provide him an advantage in "97.5 WAMZ-FM 100" qualifying and competition. "I'm not going to deny that it's better to be five-foot-five and thin than it is to be five-foot-nine and fat," he said. "It's hard to quantify how big an advantage there is, but it's not my problem and I'm going to take advantage of whatever I can."

Series championship leader Jay Howard was second-fastest in the first practice session with a 189.926-mph (28.0531 seconds) effort and third-quickest in the second session with a 188.886-mph (28.2075 seconds) lap. "In traffic, the car goes really good," Howard said. "I've got a bit to find in qualifying. No matter what anyone says, everybody wants to be on the pole. To say it any different would be lying. We've got a good car and great engineers. We're trying to find that extra little bit.

He agreed that Cunningham may gain an on-track performance boost from his physical build.

"Really, on a superspeedway like this, I'd like to be three-feet tall and about half the weight, because the difference between me and Wade and might make the difference."

Story by Mike Schmaltz

~ Kentucky Speedway ~