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Battle in Texas to decide IRL

Closely contested championship comes down to two drivers: Sam Hornish and Helio Castroneves.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002

Sam Hornish Jr. doesn't do scenarios. The way he sees it, the simplest way to claim the hotly contested Indy Racing League championship is to win the season's final race today at Texas Motor Speedway.

No math.

No fuss.

No question.

Looking to be the IRL's first repeat champion, Hornish leads Helio Castroneves by 12 points. No other driver in the Chevy 500 field is within reach of the title.

"I haven't thought about all of those scenarios of what happens if I'm ahead or behind," said Hornish, who last year became the youngest driver, at 22, to win a North American open-wheel title. "I'm going in to win the race. If I win, the points take care of themselves."

Castroneves will be counting cars. Even if he earns the maximum 52 points -- 50 for winning and two for leading the most laps -- he needs at least one more car to finish ahead of Hornish. A tie, possible if Castroneves earns 52 points and Hornish finishes second, gives the title to Hornish based on total victories, four to three.

"There is only one guy at this stage that we are looking for. That is Sam," said Castroneves, in his first IRL season with owner Roger Penske. "Sam is the guy that we have to finish ahead of."

Fittingly, the title chase concludes at Texas, the 1.5-mile speedway where six IRL events have been decided by less than one second. In June, Jeff Ward nipped Al Unser Jr. by .0111 seconds in the second-closest IRL finish. The IRL's third- and fifth-closest margins also came at Texas, a D-shaped oval on which open-wheel cars race three-wide at more than 200 mph.

"I couldn't think of a better place than Texas Motor Speedway to finish out the championship," veteran Eddie Cheever said. "After every Texas race, I get out of the car completely drained, both physically and mentally. If you look at the spectators, they look almost as tired as we do from standing up in their seats the entire race."

All eyes will be on Hornish and Castroneves.

Hornish took the points lead last weekend with his fourth victory, beating Unser in the series closest finish, a .0024-second margin at Chicagoland. Castroneves has two victories, including the Indianapolis 500. He could be the first since Jacques Villeneuve in 1995 -- before the major open-wheel split -- to win the Indy 500 and a championship in the same season.

"Since I've never won a national championship, this would be a great goal to accomplish," said Castroneves, who also won the Indy 500 last season when he raced in CART.

Castroneves' Team Penske teammate, Gil de Ferran, is within 38 of Hornish but will not race because of a concussion sustained at Chicagoland. His replacement, Max Papis, cannot earn championship points for de Ferran.

The close racing conditions at Texas could be perilous for either driver. In June, Hornish had a fast car but was involved in an early accident with Cheever. Hornish hopes for a battle to the checkered flag between he and Castroneves.

"I definitely don't want to see him go out on the first lap," Hornish said. "That takes some of the fun away. I don't want anybody to have any excuses, "If so-and-so hadn't run into me on the first lap, I would have won.' I don't want to have those excuses, either.

"So, I would like to see it go down to the last couple of laps. I don't really want to see a whole lot of people up there battling. But whatever happens, my goal is to win the race. All we really want to do is win the race."

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