Title race heats up in California

As IRL IndyCar Series drivers and teams began preparing for Sunday's Toyota Indy 400 at California Speedway, the race within the race came to the fore. Five drivers remain within 41 points of series points leader Helio Castroneves. The top four, however, are separated by just 17 points

Title race heats up in California

At this point, none of the five is playing conservatively.

"What I need to do is win," said Sam Hornish Jr, who has closed rapidly to within 41 points of Castroneves with wins in two of the last three races. "We're far enough behind that we need to win these last two races. We also need a little bit of bad luck from some of the other guys."

That goes for the other four, too. Castroneves leads Scott Dixon by 12 points, Tony Kanaan by 14 points, and Gil de Ferran by 17. Just Sunday's race and the finale Oct. 12 at Texas Motor Speedway remain.

"We just need to stay up front and get some points," said Dixon, who has won three races this season but has been hampered in the points race by two DNFs. "Our biggest problem this year has been trying to finish. We've been leading many races, but we've fallen out halfway through."

Consistency, even in the final two races, will be the key. Consecutive top-five finishes - not necessarily wins - could be enough to clinch the championship.

"We cannot think about what is going to happen," said Castroneves, who has posted nine top-fives in 14 races this season. "We have to focus on our job. Whatever happens, happens."

Kanaan, who posted just one win but remained in contention with 11 top-10 finishes, preached patience heading into Friday's practice sessions at California's two-mile oval.

"We are going to play clean and try to win in the best way, and that is clean," Kanaan said. "Between the five of us, we trust each other. I think you will see people with nothing to lose trying to go crazy. The respect between the five of us is mutual."

Perhaps the most unusual - and popular - road to the championship might be de Ferran's. He missed the race in April at Twin Ring Motegi after a bad crash at Phoenix. He has since gone on a remarkable run, winning two races (including the Indianapolis 500) while finishing on the podium six times in 11 races. Oh, by the way, he's retiring at the end of the season.

"We have a chance at the championship, just as any of those guys," de Ferran said. "I've been able to experience the highs of the highs and the lows of the lows this season. If you take out the accident, it's been a really good season."

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