Tight IRL IndyCar Series Championship Chase Hits Kentucky Speedway
The Kentucky Speedway "Meijer Indy 300 Presented by Coca-Cola and Secret" will play an important role in determining the outcome of the 2006 IRL IndyCar Series championship this season when drivers take to the track for Race 12 of 14 August 13 at 3:45 p.m.
Penske Racing veteran and two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves holds a slim eight-point lead over his teammate and 2003 Kentucky Speedway race winner Sam Hornish, Jr., in the series standings. Defending series champion Dan Wheldon holds down the third spot in the championship chase and is 17 points behind Castroneves while 2002 series champion Scott Dixon is 31 points off the championship pace in fourth place.
If history is an indication, expect each to be a factor in the deciding the "Meijer Indy 300 Presented by Coca-Cola and Secret."
Castroneves enters Kentucky Speedway coming off his league-leading fourth win of the season which he captured at Michigan International Speedway on July 30. In addition to the win, he has taken a total of two top-five and four top-10 finishes in his past five starts. The Brazilian-born driver has charted three fifth-place finishes through four career appearances at the track. Castoneves was fifth last year and is averaging a seventh-place finish on the 1.5-mile Kentucky tri-oval.
Hornish, Jr., who can make his seventh Kentucky start Sunday, owns the best track record among the title contending quartet. In addition to his win, he has generated a total of three top-five and five top-10 Kentucky finishes while posting an average finish sixth. He is coming off a 19th-place finish at Michigan International Speedway in the series most recent race, but charted two wins and a second-place finish in three of the four races prior.
Wheldon led a race-high 104 laps at Kentucky Speedway in last season's event before taking his second consecutive third-place Kentucky finish. The Emberton, England native brought home an eighth-place Kentucky finish in 2003 and is shooting for the first Bluegrass State win for Andretti Green Racing.
His teammate, Scott Dixon, is intent on improving on his average Kentucky Speedway finish of 13th this Sunday. The Auckland, New Zealand driver opened his Kentucky Speedway career strong with a second-place finish in 2003, but closed out the 2004 and 2005 races with respective 13th- and 23rd-place finishes.
The remaining top-10 in the standings are: Vitor Meira (Fifth, -56 points), Tony Kanaan (Sixth, -67 points), Mario Andretti (Seventh, -126 points), Dario Franchitti (Eighth, -127 points), Tomas Scheckter (Ninth, -137 points) and Danica Patrick (10th, -140 points).
Patrick also will be a part of track history on Sunday when she joins Sarah Fisher on the grid to mark the fourth time in speedway history that a major series race has featured two female drivers. The race also will mark the second time in IRL IndyCar Series history and the first time since the 2000 Indianapolis 500 that a series event will feature two female starters. That race featured Fisher and Lyn St. James.
Furthering the interest in the female duo, the "Meijer Indy 300 Presented by Coca-Cola and Secret" also will be the first head-to-head series match-up between Fisher and Patrick. Both drivers have scored series pole awards at the track. Patrick led the field to the green flag in 2005 and Fisher won her award in 2002 to become the first woman to complete the feat for a major open-wheel race. Despite not racing in the series for two years, Fisher still holds the Kentucky Speedway series and overall track record qualifying effort of 221.390 mph (24.0661 seconds).
Overall, seven female drivers have made 23 major series starts at Kentucky Speedway across the ARCA RE/MAX, NASCAR Craftsman Truck (NCTS) and IRL IndyCar series. Evernham Motorsports driver Erin Crocker (ARCA RE/MAX Series, NCTS), Fisher (IRL ICS), Christi Passmore (ARCA RE/MAX Series), Patrick (IRL ICS), Deborah Renshaw (ARCA RE/MAX Series, NCTS), Shawna Robinson (ARCA RE/MAX Series) and Kelly Sutton (NCTS) have combined to take four pole awards, two top-five and eight top-10 finishes.
Crocker generated the best overall performance by a female at the track when she won the pole award for a July 2005 ARCA RE/MAX Series race and finished second. She became the first two-time Kentucky Speedway female pole award winner on July 7, 2006 when she started a 150-mile ARCA RE/MAX Series race on the inside front row before finishing 27th. Fisher owns the second-best female finish at the track. She closed out the 2000 race third in her Kentucky debut.
Tickets for Sunday's race and Saturday's "97.5 WAMZ-FM Pole Day" featuring IRL IndyCar and Indy Pro Series qualifying are still available and can be reserved through the tickets pages of this Web site, by phone at 888-652-RACE or at any Meijer store.
Story by Mike Schmaltz
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