A five-way battle for the IRL title was settled by a Texas-sized crash
Early Sunday morning, sitting in his team's plush motor coach at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Roger Penske examined a chart mat depicted all possible outcomes of the IRL championship. The Chevy 500, the season's final race, was hours away, and five drivers—Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Sam Hornish Jr. and Gil de Ferran—still had a chance at the points title. As Penske, the owner of Castroneves's and De Ferran's Marlboro Team Penske, studied the matrix, his mind wandered back through his 45 years in racing. He couldn't recall a tighter championship race.
"There have been some close Winston Cup finishes over the years, but nothing compares to this," said Penske, also a NASCAR team owner. "It shows how competitive the IRL has become."
Because of this mad dash to the title, many drivers and owners—Penske included—feared the Big One on Sunday, a multicar crash caused by overage-gressiveness. With 12 laps to go, it happened, though no contenders were involved. Kenny Brack, the 1998 IRL champion and a native of Sweden, was in fourth position, running down the backstretch, when his car made contact with the right rear tire of Tomas Scheckter's. Brack's car rose into the air like a jet at liftoff and at 220 mph slammed into the 12-foot-high catch fence in front of the stands. The car disintegrated around Brack, but the cockpit stayed intact and skidded to a stop along the track. Amazingly Brack was alert minutes later. On Monday he was at Parkland Hospital in serious condition with multiple fractures.
At the time of the wreck De Ferran and Dixon were running one-two. Because of the damage to the fence the race was black-flagged, and so the 35-year-old Brazilian, De Ferran, this year's Indy 500 champ who on Sunday retired from racing, was declared the winner. But it was Dixon, a 23-year-old IRL rookie from New Zealand, who claimed the season championship. He held a 30-point advantage over De Ferran entering the Chevy 500, and his second-place finish was good enough to give owner Chip Ganassi his first IRL title.
"It was sad to see the crash," said Dixon, who had three victories in 2003, "but the racing in the IRL this season has been extremely close. You had a feeling it was going to get ugly."
A Teen Dream
Brian Vickers, 19, made his Winston Cup debut last Saturday, finishing 33 rd in the UAW-GM Quality 500 in Charlotte. Next year Vickers will become the youngest full-time driver ever in NASCAR's top series, racing for Hendrick Motorsports. He may not contend for the title in 2004, but given that many are already calling Vickers "The next Boy Wonder," it may not be long.
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