Tue, Aug 15, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Hornish blasts back into IRL title lead

BACK IN FRONT Sam Hornish Jr's fourth win of the season allowed him to leapfrog teammate Helio Castroneves in the Indy Racing League points standings

AP , SPARTA, KENTUCKY

Scott Sharp passes by as Kosuke Matsuura of Japan slams into the third-turn wall during the Meijer Indy 300 at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kentucky, on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Sam Hornish Jr reclaimed the Indy Racing League points lead on Sunday, passing Scott Dixon with four laps to go to win the Meijer Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway.

The win was Hornish's fourth of the year and the eighth by Team Penske this season. His second career victory at Kentucky helped him get back the points lead from Brazilian teammate Helio Castroneves in the Indy Racing League (IRL).

Hornish now leads Castroneves by seven points heading into the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma in two weeks. He gave up the lead to Castroneves at Michigan on July 30, when a broken water pump sent him to a season-worst 19th-place finish.

"It wasn't very fun for two weeks to think about why we lost 38 points to the new leader," Hornish said. "It's hard to sit there and watch [Castroneves] win the race when my car is not running and there's nothing I can do about it."

Castroneves finished third behind Dixon, who said he wasn't pleased with the way Hornish overtook him coming out of the fourth turn on lap 196.

"He just chopped me off, I lost all the air and nearly spun," Dixon said. "If I hadn't let up, I would have hit him."

Hornish said he was clear of Dixon when he went back in front, though the move wasn't the one he thought he'd need. After battling with England's Dan Wheldon for most of the second half of the race, Hornish thought he'd have to take a high outside line on the last lap to win.

"If it came down to it, I would have had to time it right," Hornish said. "I never would have passed him the whole way ... but I think I would have beat him at the line."

He didn't have to. Despite leading a race-high 66 laps, Wheldon ruined his chances of ending Team Penske's dominance after a botched pit stop on lap 186.

Coming in for a splash and go, Wheldon overshot his pit by a few feet, costing himself precious seconds as his crew frantically pushed him back into position. He finished fourth.

"I just made a mistake," Wheldon said. "Performance wise, I thought we were the best out front. We just can't seem to close the deal."

The potential duel between Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher never developed, despite the two becoming the first women drivers to start alongside each other in an IRL race.

Though they began the day side-by-side on row six, Patrick -- who collided with Vitor Meira during practice before the race -- ran in the top half of the field most of the day before finishing eighth. Fisher, making her first IRL start since the 2004 Indianapolis 500, needed a late surge to finish 12th, a lap behind the leaders.

"We finished where we started," said Fisher, who will run in the season-ending Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 10. "I wanted to do more. We had some trouble with straight-line speed. I'm now sure what it was."

Despite a course-record 23 lead changes, the race played out like much of the season has for Team Penske, with Castroneves and Hornish pushing the pace and Wheldon and Dixon taking turns trying to split up the duo.

A close finish seemed likely following a caution on lap 192 after defending champion Scott Sharp spun out while leaving the pits, but Hornish had little trouble passing Dixon shortly after the restart. Dixon gamely held off a late push from Castroneves for his third runner-up finish this season.

"I thought I had the fastest car today," Castroneves said. "We might not have won this afternoon, but we're definitely right there in the championship hunt."

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