Nazareth: Castroneves fends off Hornish

The misfortune of others wasn't part of Helio Castroneves' plan, but his run for the IRL IndyCar Series championship received a powerful assist with a snap and a crash Sunday afternoon. Castroneves held off a tenacious charge by Sam Hornish Jr. to win the Firestone Indy 225 at Nazareth Speedway.

Nazareth: Castroneves fends off Hornish

More significantly, Castroneves took control of the series points lead - assuming a 25-point cushion with three races left in the season - after bad luck stuck Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan.

"You never know when you're on top," Castroneves said. "It's like the stock market. Sometimes it's up there and sometimes it's down. It ain't over until the fat lady sings. We have to keep working hard and stay focused."

Hornish was all over Castroneves' rear wing during the final lap, trying all angles to get around. He never could, and Castroneves recorded his second win in the past three IRL IndyCar Series races.

"He was coming from both sides," Castroneves said. "Running IROC helped me today. When you run IROC, you have to watch your mirrors constantly. That's what I was doing today. A lot of things were going on. Thank God I had enough experience to be able to get there and save my position."

Kanaan came in to the race with an eight-point lead over Castroneves. The Andretti Green Racing driver left 32 points behind Castroneves after Tomas Scheckter rear-ended Kanaan's car when Kanaan checked to avoid Castroneves and Kenny Brack midway through the race.

Dixon dropped even further back after his car encountered half-shaft problems early in the race. He dropped out after 155 laps and finished 16th, pushing him 42 points behind Castroneves and leaving Dixon wondering if he was destined to lose the title. "It just doesn't seem like we are meant to win the championship," he said.

Somehow, it seems like Castroneves is. He has gained one position in the standings in each of the past three races, jumping from fourth to first.

"We got a break," Castroneves said. "It was fortunate for me and unfortunate for the other guys. At the beginning of the year, I was in a slump but I was always right there. Finally, the breaks are coming to me."

As Hornish closed rapidly on the final lap, his engine missed briefly, possibly a result of low fuel. "About three-quarters of the way down the backstraight, it started missing," Hornish said. "The fuel light came on. We stretched it as far as we could."

While Castroneves used much of the narrow, 60-foot track to defend his lead, Hornish couldn't find a place to pass. At times, Castroneves weaved across the width of the backstretch in an effort to keep Hornish from finding a way around. When asked if he thought he'd been blocked, Hornish left it to the authorities.

"I'll leave that up to (IRL vice president of operations) Brian Barnhart," Hornish said. "He's the one who officiates these races. If he thinks that was a block, then he'll do something about it."

When asked if he thought Castroneves was blocking, Hornish smiled. "Hey, I just drive the race car," he said.

The question of Castroneves overprotecting his position didn't end there. When told it appeared as if Castroneves had blocked Hornish on a couple of occasions, Castroneves quipped, "Just a couple?"

"I never intended to try to do that," Castroneves said. "In this series, you have a bunch of people watching what you're doing. I was trying to pass the guys in front of me as well. Nobody wanted to give up easy."

With Castroneves and Hornish battling for the lead, Bryan Herta quietly finished third, his best finish since winning at Kansas Speedway in July. "The only problem for me was a misfire at the start," Herta said. "I lost three spots in one lap, but it cleaned up. From then on, I tried, but I didn't really have the ability to pass many cars."

Gil de Ferran finished fourth - his 10th consecutive top-10 finish - and moved into second in points, 25 behind his Marlboro Team Penske team-mate.

"This was one of the most difficult races I've had in a long time," said de Ferran, who battled oversteer throughout the race. "I was just trying to survive out there."

De Ferran's team-mate, however, was the one climbing the fence after the race, weary from fighting with Hornish through the final laps. "When you have Sam Hornish right behind you and you're trying to save fuel and keep your position, it's a little tough," said Castroneves, tongue firmly in cheek.

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