Fontana: Hornish wins fastest-ever race

Sam Hornish Jr recorded his third win in the last four IRL IndyCar Series, continuing his come-from-behind pursuit of the championship with a dominant victory at California Speedway. The result sets up a thrilling showdown for the IRL title, with five drivers covered by 30 points heading into the final race

Fontana: Hornish wins fastest-ever race

The win also had historic significance because of the speed it was achieved at. Slowed by just one caution flag for five laps, the 400 miles were completed in less than two hours - an average of 207.151mph, making it the fastest closed-course race in motorsport history. The previous record - 197.955 mph - was set by Jimmy Vasser in a Champ Car race at California Speedway last year.

But the personal significance of Hornish's win came from the points gained. By edging the other four drivers in the IRL championship hunt, Hornish pulled to within 19 points of Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves, who are tied on points at the head of the standings.

With just one race remaining in the 2003 season, Dixon and Castroneves lead Tony Kanaan by seven points, Hornish by 19 and Gil de Ferran by 30. Hornish heads into the season finale at Texas Motor Speedway knowing that he could win the race and lose the championship.

"It's still kind of a longshot," Hornish insisted. "I could win and one of those guys could finish second or third and still get beat for the championship. We still have to go out and win a race and have some other guys have bad luck."

The appearance of just one yellow flag, for debris on the 75th lap of the 200-lap race, helped lead to the record pace. The lack of attrition also contributed. Just two cars - Bryan Herta's and Richie Hearn's - dropped out of the race.

"I read some articles recently saying the 200mph race was coming," Hornish said. "It's great that I could be a part of it and actually win it. It's really a lot of fun to go out there and race against these guys. When it says 207mph in the record books, it will say that I won. But it's really a team effort by all the guys out there on the track."

Hornish held off a run by Scott Dixon late in the race, eventually pulling away to win by 0.3563 seconds. "Sam was pretty smart," said Dixon. "I think he knew I could only stay on the bottom, so he was using that up. Every time I would try to go in, I would lose the front of my car. From the high line, I was getting pretty loose."

Kanaan kept himself in the points race by finishing third. His Andretti Green Racing team-mate, Dan Wheldon, finished fourth, followed by Tomas Scheckter, who led 112 laps before fading to fifth. Castroneves, Roger Yasukawa, Scott Sharp, Al Unser Jr. and Alex Barron rounded out the top 10.

Kanaan never led, but stayed with the leaders throughout the race until Hornish and Dixon separated themselves from the field with about 20 laps remaining. "I don't know what happened," Kanaan said. "Those guys decided to take off. It looks like they had more than we did. I couldn't do anything."

De Ferran, whose Marlboro Team Penske decided to go back to the Panoz G Force for this race, struggled to a 15th-place finish that seriously damaged his challenge for the championship in his final season. He won the Indianapolis 500 in May in a G Force, but went back to a Dallara for the nine races before this weekend.

"In hindsight, we probably didn't have enough experience with the G Force in this race trim," de Ferran said. "However, we took a chance. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."

And sometimes, you're Sam Hornish Jr. In his five races with the Ford-built Gen IV Chevy Indy V-8 engine, Hornish has won three times and finished second twice, resuscitating a previously lifeless season.

"We're going to give it everything we've got," Hornish said of the season finale at Texas, where his Panther Racing team has won the last three races. "It's really shaped up to a tremendous championship battle. The fans who come to the Texas race are going to get one heck of an experience."

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