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Kanaan wraps up title

A few feet separated Adrian Fernandez from Tony Kanaan at the finish of the Toyota Indy 400 at California Speedway. A few feet, though, weren't enough to separate Kanaan from the IRL IndyCar Series championship

Fernandez beat Kanaan to the finish line by 0.0183 seconds Sunday to win the race, but Kanaan's second-place finish clinched the more important prize - the season title and the million-dollar prize that goes with it.

"I don't think I won; I think we won," Kanaan said, referring to his Andretti Green Racing team-mates. "The best moment in my life was after I crossed the finish line and all four of us did donuts on the back straight. That tells you how happy everybody was."

The finish ended Kanaan's dramatic run from last place into the lead. He needed to finish fifth to clinch the championship, but found himself leading when the yellow flag waved with six laps remaining in the 200-lap race. On a final-lap restart, Fernandez pulled alongside Kanaan.

"Nobody will take this one from me," Fernandez said. "It was fantastic for us."

Instead of lying back when Fernandez got beside him, Kanaan raced hard to the finish line. About two feet separated the two cars at the stripe, proof that a suggestion by team co-owner Kim Green to take it easy over the final lap had little effect on Kanaan.

"I wasn't going to do any crazy stuff, but I was racing hard," Kanaan said. "You can't start thinking about all the possibilities that could happen. You'd go crazy. If I did that, I'd lock myself in the house and never come out until race day. I thought to myself, 'Why would you change things if the only thing you know to do best is the way you do it?' If I did it differently, I would have made a mistake."

Instead, Kanaan trusted Fernandez, whose red-hot streak continued at the end of his first season in the IRL. Fernandez has won three of the last five races, including the last two, and has climbed to fourth in points despite not making the decision to move his team from the Champ Car World Series until after the IRL season opener.

"I can't believe it," Fernandez said. "It's like, 'Wow, we're winning.' We've been so competitive these last five races. We've found something on this car."

Following Fernandez's No. 5 Fernandez Racing Honda-powered Panoz G Force and Kanaan's No. 11 Andretti Green Racing Honda/Dallara to the line was Kanaan's teammate and closest challenger in the points race, Dan Wheldon. The Briton recovered from a stop-and-go penalty that dropped him to eighth place with 14 laps remaining.

"I think Brian Barnhart made a very bad call," Wheldon said of the IRL's vice president of operations. "When he makes a call like that, he should come to the workshop and meet with my engineer and go over the data. I have a lot of respect for the guy, but the decision was very wrong."

Following Wheldon was Sam Hornish Jr., the highest finishing Toyota driver behind the Hondas of Kanaan, Fernandez and Wheldon. Buddy Rice, who was eliminated from title contention when Kanaan started Sunday's race, finished fifth, while Dario Franchitti gave AGR three cars in the top six finishers.

Helio Castroneves, who led 145 of the 200 laps and appeared to have the strongest car in the field, faded to a seventh-place finish. "The end wasn't what we were hoping for," Castroneves said. "The yellows at the end were really tough for us. I'm not sure was went wrong on the restarts. I think fourth gear might have been too tall, but we'll have to take a look at it to figure out the problem."

Rounding out the top 10 were Scott Dixon, Townsend Bell and Mark Taylor.

The championship was the first major motorsports title in Kanaan's 18-year racing career and first since he won the Indy Lights championship in 1997. It also was the first for Michael Andretti as a team owner. Andretti retired as a driver last year after forming Andretti Green Racing with co-owners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree.

"I'm proud of him," Andretti said of Kanaan. "I'm proud of the whole team. He drove like a champion from the first race. He drove like that last year, too. He deserved this one. The whole team did."

With nine laps remaining and Kanaan leading Castroneves, Fernandez swept past Castroneves for second on a restart and began pressing Kanaan for the lead. Three laps later, Tomas Enge's car spun and crashed, collecting Tomas Scheckter. Fernandez beat Kanaan to the line, but IRL officials ruled that Kanaan held the lead at the moment the yellow was displayed.

Asked if he thought the race would go back to green before the end, Andretti smiled and said, "I hope not." However, it did go back to green. Fernandez made his move, Kanaan won the championship, and all were happy.

"A combination of good things make things happen," Kanaan said. "It's not only one thing. It's not just the engine and it's not just me. It's not just the engineers. It's everything."

The IRL IndyCar Series concludes the 2004 season on October 17 at Texas Motor Speedway.

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