Tight Three-Way Firestone Indy Lights Championship Battle Coming to Kentucky Speedway
Three drivers separated by a scant 44 points in the Firestone Indy Lights championship battle began a search for speed on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway tri-oval today during a six-team test.
The Aug. 9 "Kentucky 100" will launch the final four-race leg of the 2008 season and will be staged on one of two oval tracks remaining on the schedule. The series will travel from Kentucky Speedway to back-to-back races at Infineon Raceway Aug. 23-24 before concluding the 16-race campaign at Chicagoland Speedway Sept. 7.
Richard Antinucci, Raphael Matos and Ana Beatriz are accomplished road-course competitors and have been facing the challenge of learning the intricacies of oval-track racing throughout the campaign in the IndyCar Series top developmental circuit.
Sam Schmidt Motorsports rookie Antinucci will hold a one-point lead in the championship standings over AFS/Andretti Green Racing driver Matos when the "Kentucky 100" starting grid takes the green flag. Antinucci's rookie teammate Beatriz will sit 44 points off the championship pace in third.
Matos returned to Firestone Indy Lights competition this season following a one-year absence during which he won the 2007 ChampCar Atlantic Championship. He holds an oval-track experience edge on his first-year championship rivals and has generated an average finish of 9.5 in the six series races contested on oval tracks.
The 27-year-old earned his series-leading third win of the season on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course July 19 and owns a total of six top-five and nine top-10 finishes this season.
He expects to exploit his experience edge in the "Kentucky 100" as he tries to overtake Antinucci.
"We've been better than him and pretty consistent on most of the ovals. I'm getting better and improving while still learning. We're getting better as a team and we have very good momentum going now that we've won three races . We'll be up there in the championship. It's going to be a fight, a tough fight, but we're ready for it," Matos said.
The Brazilian-born racer claims solid equipment holds the key to strong oval-track results.
"There's not much you can do as far as your driving style (on an oval). You have to try to work on your car and try to get the maximum out of your equipment. It's all about your car. You can't try to drive around a problem in the car. That's about it. If you have a problem, you have to make a change and try to maximize your communication with your engineer. That's the key," he said.
Beatriz has taken an average eighth-place finish on the series six oval tracks. Her season highlight to date was her July 12 first-place run at Nashville Superspeedway that made her the first woman to claim a Firestone Indy Lights victory.
The 23-year-old who shares the same hometown of Sao Paulo, Brazil with IndyCar Series star Helio Castroneves will enter the "Kentucky 100" with strong oval-track and championship confidence. Her impressive inaugural-season record includes a win, seven top-five and eight top-10 finishes.
"It's been an amazing year. I've been proven in oval course races and we almost won a road course race. We had a third-place finish at Iowa and I felt I understood the ovals more or less. At Nashville, we were strong from the first practice. Sam Schmidt gave me a wonderful car and I was able to win.
"I think we'll be good here. I've never been to Infineon, but I hope we can be better and have some podiums again. It would be amazing to go to Chicago fighting for the championship. I think on ovals, we're in good shape. I'm confident and happy to be able to fight for this championship," she said.
Antinucci, the 20-year-old nephew of 1998 Indianapolis 500 champion Eddie Cheever, has delivered an average finish of 9.5 in his oval-track excursions this season. He placed a respective third and a disappointing 14th in the series two races on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course July 19-20. He owns two wins, seven top-five and eight top-10 finishes this season.
He will roll off the "Kentucky 100" grid with his championship expectations firmly in check.
"I've never won a long distance championship, but I've watched people do it before, and they take it race by race being as humble as they can. I have no choice but to be humble because I'm not exactly running away with a 200 point lead.
"I have to see every new oval as a new event for me. I can't just take the road courses for granted either. We have tough competition; Raphael Matos is considered one of the best open wheel racers on the whole continent. He's also one of the best I've ever raced against. I have a lot of respect for him. He's very fast.
"We do seem to be a bit stronger than the others, but that can change every weekend. So, given the right circumstances, hopefully we'll get a lot of points out of these next four races. But, to prove something to the IndyCar Series people, I'd love to get a win on an oval as well," he said.
His goal for the "Kentucky 100" is finding consistency in his oval-track effort.
"On ovals you struggle more. When you're struggling on ovals with your car balance, it's a terrible feeling because you're trying to stay within the walls and you're kind of like a sitting duck; hard to defend yourself.
"It's as if you are on one big corner, and, if you have an imbalance, it really comes out strong and true quickly. On a road course, you can mask that, you have lefts and rights and different characteristics on the track, so you can break up the rhythm.
"Basically we have had two top-twos, three top 10s and then two top-16s. So 13th (at Kansas) and 16th (at Milwaukee) is not exactly my cup of tea. But Homestead, the season opener, we led most of the laps, finished second. Frustrating to finish second, actually, in those circumstances, but we'll take it. Indy, we caught up at the end and almost won the show but we did get second.
"On two big representative ovals, we did well, and on three others we've struggled. So it's been up and down, and I'd really like to make that whole curve more consistent," he concluded.
The fifth and final 2008 Kentucky Speedway race weekend will feature amazing, high-speed Firestone Indy Lights and IndyCar Series action. The weekend opens with IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights Fanfest Aug. 8. Gates open at 3:00 p.m. The day includes practice and qualifying sessions before closing with a garage-area autograph session with IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights stars.
Action continues Aug. 9 with an IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights primetime doubleheader on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway tri-oval. Gates open at 2:00 p.m. Firestone Indy Lights practice begins at 2:30 p.m., and will be followed by an exclusive prerace concert with indie artist Josh Kelley on the Turn 1 Concourse at 4:30 p.m.
Sure-to-be-action-packed open-wheel racing begins at 6:30 p.m., with the "Meijer Indy 300 Presented by Pepsi and Edy's." The Firestone Indy Lights "Kentucky 100" will take the green flag at 9:15 p.m.
Tickets for both events are on sale now and can be reserved online through the tickets pages of this Web site, by phone at 888-652-RACE (7223), through any Meijer store and by visiting the Kentucky Speedway ticket offices at 400 Buttermilk Pike, Suite 100, in Ft. Mitchell, Ky., next to the Montgomery Inn Restaurant or the Sparta, Ky., Fan Center located off of Interstate 71 Exit 57 and Ky. Hwy. 35 N.
Story by Mike Schmaltz
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