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Four drivers, two teams, one title

By BRANT JAMES
Published September 10, 2006


They've hardly been separated, on time sheets and last-lap dashes, since the season began 13 races ago with defending series champion Dan Wheldon holding off Helio Castroneves by .0147 seconds at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Team Penske and Ganassi Racing.

Sam Hornish Jr. and Castroneves. Wheldon and teammate Scott Dixon.

Hornish, the Indy Racing League's only two-time champion, trails his Penske teammate - the only one of the four without an IRL title - by one point entering the final race today at Chicagoland Speedway. The competition between them to bring legendary team owner Roger Penske a first IRL title is stout enough, but, of course, the Ganassi drivers won't allow him a single focus. Wheldon, a St. Petersburg resident, is 19 points back, and Dixon, the 2003 champion, is 21 behind.

With Penske and Ganassi combining to win 11 of 13 races this year and all four cars running well most weeks, the drivers are used to knowing someone will be there to capitalize on any mistake.

"It's funny," Wheldon said. "It seems like each car from either team is linked. It seems wherever I am, Hornish is, and it seems wherever Scott is, Helio is.

"I would say, certainly at the beginning of the season, Penske was stronger in qualifying. Penske's were definitely quicker. But in the race, I thought we were a little bit better than them. But I think now that's equaled out, too. It's just incredibly tight. You're not talking tenths of a second a lap; you're talking tenths of a second over a full fuel spin."

The Penske and Ganassi camps struggled with underpowered Toyota engines the previous few seasons, but their engineers assumed their history of open-wheel success - 15 championships between them - would more than overcome their struggles once Honda became the sole engine manufacturer for the IRL. They were right.

With the exception of a few races when one of them suffered mechanical problems or contact with other cars, they have had few others able to consistently crash their party. They filled the top four spots at Texas and Kentucky and four of the top five at Homestead.

Castroneves, winner of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and Hornish lead the series with four wins, and each has eight top-five finishes. Wheldon has one win and eight top-fives, and Dixon has two wins and eight top-fives.

The selfishness of racing dictates that each driver advance his team's fortunes by advancing his own. Tim Cindric, president of Penske Performance and Castroneves' strategist, understands that. He just hopes his drivers can maintain some focus on the big picture in a 220 mph blur toward the finish line and the championship trophy.

"The best we can do is just try and give the drivers a reminder of the big picture as they get the red mist in front of them, decide on Lap 20 they think it's Lap 200. But that's really the best thing that we can do is just try and coach them to the end."

Castroneves and Hornish want to provide Penske with his first IRL title. Both want the other to finish second, in the race and the championship.

Wheldon said he has not discussed any team strategies with Dixon, though during a teleconference turned comedy routine on Wednesday, Dixon mused he would suggest "Dan take out the whole field and I drive right through."

"It's going to be tough for us to get them back in the pack, one of us try to win the race," Wheldon said. "We're going to go out, try to go for a race win. If it plays out, it plays out."

IRL QUALIFYING: Hornish won the pole for today's race, his fourth pole this season and the 10th of his career. Dixon will start alongside Hornish, with Wheldon and Castroneves in the third and fourth positions.

F1 QUALIFYING: Kimi Raikkonen of McLaren won the pole for today's Italian Grand Prix in Monza, Italy. Ferrari's Michael Schumacher was second, and BMW-Sauber's Nick Heidfeld was third.