Fernandez breaks series duck

One race after an embarrassing spin on the pit road, Adrian Fernandez recorded his first victory since joining the IRL IndyCar Series, holding off Buddy Rice by a car length to win the Belterra Casino Indy 300 on Sunday at Kentucky Speedway

Fernandez breaks series duck

The victory made amends for some rough pit work earlier this month at Michigan International Speedway, where Fernandez spun on the pit road and knocked down a member of his own team. Earlier in that race, after being released from a pitstop prematurely, Fernandez was involved in a tangle between Vitor Meira and Dan Wheldon, which led to a fine from the Indy Racing League.

On Sunday, the effort was flawless.

"My car liked to be in front in clean air," Fernandez said. "I knew I had to be aggressive and get to the front. That's what I did. I charged very hard."

Fernandez edged ahead of Buddy Rice for the lead with 48 laps remaining after several attempts to get by. "Adrian didn't surprise me with his pass," Rice said. "He was strong all day, and that team has the same package as ours. It was tight on fuel for everyone and we had to wait to make to make any moves until we could run a full rich mixture."

Rice kept Wheldon at bay for second place. Not only did Honda take the top seven positions and post its 10th consecutive IRL victory, Fernandez's win let Honda clinch the IRL's manufacturers' championship after just 11 of the 16 races this season.

"I started feeling good after qualifying," said Fernandez, who started fourth. "It was the first time I had qualified within a tenth of the pole, so I knew I had a good car. It was just a matter of where we were going to set up the car for the race. Were we going to be aggressive with down force or not? We were pretty aggressive."

The win reaffirmed Fernandez's decision to move the Champ Car part of his team to the IRL in March shortly before the Champ Car World Series opener. Sunday's race was Fernandez's first at Kentucky Speedway and just his 10th in the IRL's naturally aspirated, heavy downforce, all-ovals formula.

"The first time I got in the car in Phoenix was the first time I heard one of these engines," Fernandez said. "This team is just getting better and better."

After taking the lead, Fernandez held it through a round of yellow-flag pitstops and several challenges during the remaining 36 green-flag laps. Fernandez's No. 5 Fernandez Racing Honda-powered Panoz G Force beat Rice's No. 15 Rahal Letterman Racing Honda/G Force to the finish by 0.0581 seconds, the closest finish in five IRL races around Kentucky Speedway's 1.5-mile D-shaped layout.

"The last 10 laps were awesome," Fernandez said with a smile. "I kept thinking, 'If he's going to have something, come on. Try it, try it.'"

While Honda dominated the final boxscore, Chevrolet held the lead briefly when Tomas Scheckter passed Tony Kanaan midway through the race. The threat was dashed when the clutch slipped on the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Racing Chevy/Dallara and Scheckter drove off from a pitstop with the fuel and vent hoses attached. Fuel splashed on several crew members and ignited on the car, forcing Scheckter to bail at the exit of the pit road and roll on the pavement.

Nobody on the Panther crew was hurt, nor was Scheckter, but the incident was devastating to a team that has endured an inordinate share of bad luck this season.

"When they dropped me, it felt like the car was creeping a little bit, but my clutch was fully depressed," Scheckter said. "There was nothing I could do. I couldn't drop the clutch into neutral, so it started creeping some more. Eventually the right front guy told me to go."

Scheckter's team-mate, Townsend Bell, also made a run at the front, coming from a last-place start into the top five early in the race before he hit the wall on the 158th lap.

"Somebody came up and cut the air off my nose," Bell said. "I was so high anyway that I didn't have anywhere to go."

Following Fernandez and Rice to the finish line were Dan Wheldon, who challenged Rice for second late in the race but couldn't make the pass; Fernandez's teammate and protégé, Kosuke Matsuura, who recorded the best finish of his rookie season; and IndyCar Series points leader Tony Kanaan, who led 126 laps before fading.

"We lost a lot of speed after the last restart," Kanaan said. "We didn't know what was wrong. It wasn't fuel. Something happened to the car, and I didn't know what was wrong with it. A lot of people are going to look at it."

Kanaan continues to lead Rice by 50 points in the series standings with five races remaining, but seven points were shaved from his lead by Rice's second-place finish. The series resumes next weekend at Pikes Peak International Raceway in Fountain, Colo.

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