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Thrilling finish for IRL comes naturally

By BRANT JAMES
Published September 12, 2006


It was the kind of finish NASCAR so desperately wants a huge national television audience to see, but has not been able to orchestrate entering the third Chase for the Championship.

A day after 10 drivers qualified for the 10-race Nextel Cup playoff, amid confirmation from the league that it could trick up the system for next season to increase drama and the number of drivers who qualify, Sam Hornish won his third Indy Racing League title in a riveting finish at Chicagoland Speedway under the simplest of schemes.

No resetting of points, no playoffs. No gimmicks. Just try to win races all season long.

St. Petersburg resident and 2005 series champ Dan Wheldon won the race and tied Hornish for the points lead but Hornish, the 2001 and '02 champion, won another title by holding onto third place in the race; he won the tiebreaker with four victories to Wheldon's two. Hornish, 27, entered one point behind Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves with Wheldon 19 points back and 2003 series champion Scott Dixon 21 out. Organic drama, not pumped with additives and grown under TV lights.

But, alas it was the tree falling in the forest that no one heard, the checkered flag waving that few saw on the first Sunday of the National Football League schedule.

That the four drivers who began the race with a chance to win the championship all came from either Penske or Ganassi Racing spoke of other problems for the IRL, but Nextel Cup is dealing with its own big-team dominance. Roush Racing took five of 10 Chase berths last season and Hendrick Motorsports claimed three this year. For the third straight year, no single-car team qualified.

Certainly, NASCAR's Chase system produced a close result in 2004, with Kurt Busch holding off Jimmie Johnson by a record low margin of eight points, but last season Tony Stewart took the championship without winning a race during the Chase. Every point gained or lost throughout the 14-race IRL season mattered for every driver. Hornish's broken water pump at Michigan and accident at Nashville after leading, Wheldon's cut tire in the Indianapolis 500 and bad pit stops at Texas and Kentucky, all combined to help create a dynamic finish.

FALL PLANS: Hornish said he has yet to discuss with Team Penske plans for testing ARCA or Busch Series cars this fall. But he sounded very much committed to open-wheel racing.

"I still want to win some more (Indianapolis) 500s," he said. "That's the big thing. I've still got three more to go to get anywhere near (four-time winner) Rick Mears."

Hornish leads the IRL in all-time wins (18) and is the only multiple champion. He implied that testing or racing stock cars would be done to complement his open-wheel career.

"Right now we're focused on IndyCar stuff. We want to continue doing that throughout the year," he said. "We ... have not had much of an opportunity to sit down and figure out what our plan is. With the IndyCar series being consolidated down into a short amount of months and having the opportunity where I could probably run 10-12 races whether they be ARCA or Busch or whatever in my free time, it gives me the opportunity to have a little bit more practice time."

HE'S TRYING: Busch's attempted image makeover from snippy villain to beer-drinkin' party boy is still drawing mixed reviews, judging by the applause and jeering Thursday night when he introduced the Black Crowes before a free concert on Brown's Island in Richmond. Busch, sponsored by Miller Lite since taking over the No. 2 Dodge vacated by Rusty Wallace at Penske Racing, seemed well-loosened up with his "hell yeahs," and professed excitement over driving the "blue deuce."

CHIEF CHANGES: Petty Enterprises made crew chief changes on both cars. Bill Wilburn, former crew chief for Rusty Wallace, was chosen to run Kyle Petty's team, and Paul Andrews will handle the same duties for Bobby Labonte, moving over from Petty's team. Wilburn replaces Greg Steadman, who took over from Todd Parrott on an interim basis.

Information from Times wires was used in this report.