Five hot drivers can win title at IRL season's finale today

ON MOTOR SPORTS

October 12, 2003|By SANDRA McKEE

The Indy Racing League championship is down to the wire.

Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon go into today's Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Forth Worth tied for the lead with 467 points. Right behind them and still within striking distance are Tony Kanaan (460), Sam Hornish Jr. (448) and Gil de Ferran (437).

A lot of stories are in play. Castroneves, Dixon and Kanaan are seeking their first titles. Hornish, who has won three of the series' four races, is a two-time champion seeking a third title before leaving his Panther Racing team for the Penske organization next season. And de Ferran, 35, is a two-time CART champion who is retiring at the end of the day.

Does anyone beyond the IRL's die-hard fans know?

"The IRL has the best racing there is in the world," said John Barnes, who owns the Hornish entry, during a conference call. "But, as someone said, it's the best-kept secret in sports. The fan base is growing, the awareness of Panther Racing is growing, the teams are growing. At this point, the only problem we have is our broadcast partner. ... They really need to do a better job in promoting the IRL.

"You look at any Fox or NBC broadcast, every hour or two there's a plug in there about the NASCAR race that's on that weekend. We need partners who are willing to build us like these other people built NASCAR."

Today's IRL race is on ESPN. Those who tune in at 3:30 p.m. will see what the league is known for - close, competitive racing. It's anyone's guess what the outcome will be.

Chip Ganassi, who owns Dixon's car, sees the unpredictability as a plus.

"One of the exciting things about the series is how competitive everyone is," Ganassi said. "We don't know what's going to happen, and anybody that tells you they do know is obviously not telling the truth. So, I think that's good. I mean, let's face it, we have been in the series and are in series today, where the championship is already tied up, or they are tied up early in the season.

"I mean, what better way to cap off the season than to be coming down to the final race and have four or five people eligible to win the championship?"

The other series Ganassi was referring to is the Winston Cup Series. Ganassi competes in that series, too, but the title chase has been dulled by leader Matt Kenseth's season-long big lead. NASCAR is studying changes to its points system. Meanwhile, Ganassi said the IRL already has it right.

"I mean, I'd rather have a 200-point lead right now, but that's not to be," he said. "I'm simply happy we're in it. We certainly want to be the guys to close it out. But it sure makes a good race for the fans, the way it is."

Ganassi is pragmatic about what will happen today. Hornish obviously has the hot hand, but even if he wins the race, Dixon or Castroneves can still clinch the title by finishing in the top four.

"If you can't finish at the front in Texas, you probably don't deserve to win the championship," Ganassi said. "And I would think, as it turns out, you are not going to be able to. Whoever is going to win [the title] is going to have to be at the front, depending on who it is and where they are. But, the point being, you have to be at the front."

Brilliant nights

The Winston Cup series was to run its seventh night race of the season last night, this one in prime time on a Saturday night, a fact not lost on Ken Schanzer, NBC Sports president.

"Last year, there were five prime-time NASCAR races, which is 13 percent of the schedule," Schanzer said. "This year, there are seven with the addition of the Charlotte race and the Bud Shootout. Next year, there will be eight, when we move to Los Angeles at night on Labor Day weekend. ... There's just something about ... the impact of lights on these race cars that makes it all the more dramatic.

"This is just another example of the stunning growth of this remarkable ride called NASCAR. Since 2000, the ratings are up 59 percent, which is why it's the No. 2 sport behind the NFL in America."

What Schanzer said he particularly likes is the year-over-year growth in non-traditional markets such as Baltimore, which was up 19 percent. The increase in other nontraditional markets included Buffalo, 39 percent; St. Louis, 30 percent; Dallas, 21 percent; Boston, 20 percent; Pittsburgh, 20 percent; and Providence, 20 percent.

Network officials were more than delighted two weeks ago when the Winston Cup race in Talladega, Ala., drew its biggest audience opposite the NFL. That rating was a 5.5, compared with Fox's average for an NFL doubleheader of 8.8 and a CBS single game of 9.7.

Last weekend, the race in Kansas City, Kan., drew a 4.1 rating, compared with 9.0 for football on Fox and 9.4 for football on CBS. Each rating point represents 1,055,000 homes in the United States tuned to a broadcast.

Octoberfest is coming

Hagerstown Speedway is making plans for what it calls "the greatest two-day show on dirt," the 16th annual Octoberfest 350, Oct. 25 and 26.

Top drivers in late models, big block modifieds, super sprints and small block modifieds will all compete in one program, with the winner of each feature pocketing $10,000.

For the past two years, more than 215 cars have jammed the infield. Most of the top drivers in dirt track racing are expected to show for the season-ending race.

The action begins Oct. 25, with pit gates opening at 9 a.m. Grandstands will open at 11 a.m. with warm-ups at noon. Racing begins at 1 p.m.

On Sunday, the gates will open and warm-ups will begin at the same times.

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