For those watching the Indy Racing League races, this season has been a thriller. It seems almost every result has been decided by a nose. Now, as the IRL heads into its last race of the season tonight, the Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, just 12 points separate first and second place. Defending champ Sam Hornish Jr. has the lead over Helio Castroneves.
Castroneves, 27, is driving for the Penske organization in its first IRL season. Even so, Castroneves' presence isn't a surprise. But here is Hornish, 23, driving for Panther Racing, proving the title he won as a rookie was no fluke.
He has also done a pretty good job of thumbing his nose at something called a sophomore jinx, winning four races.
Breathing space might be nice, but he didn't expect any.
"Penske, you know, definitely - probably - [Penske is] the best-funded team coming into this year," Hornish said on a conference call. "If you were to ask me if they were going to do as well as they did, I would say yes."
The Penske team of Castroneves and Gil de Ferran are second and third in the points chase, the only two drivers behind Hornish who have a chance to clinch the title tonight. But de Ferran, who suffered a concussion in a racing accident last week, is sitting out this race, leaving Castroneves as the only contender against Hornish.
Castroneves was fined after last week's race for "blocking." But he didn't sound like a man chastised. "The championship, for me, it's what I'm looking for right now," said Castroneves, the two-time Indy 500 winner. "So, I'm going to go and fight as hard as I can with whatever I have in my hands and make sure that I'm going to be there in the end.
"The good news, we are all professionals. ... Everybody, I'm sure, is going to respect each other."
If Hornish wins, he will be the first two-time IRL champion in the league's seven-year history. If Castroneves wins, he will be the first IRL driver to win the Indy 500 and the championship in the same year.
To eliminate Castroneves, Hornish has to finish first or second, something Castroneves plans to overcome.
"I am planning to be 13 points ahead of this guy by the end of the race," he said.
No matter what the final result, Hornish said he wants it to be a race to the finish. A race everyone can be proud of.
"It can't really come down to a heads up duel, because if I finish first or second, I still win," Hornish said. "But, I definitely don't want to see him go out on the first lap. That takes some of the fun away, and I don't want anybody to have any excuses and say that, 'If so and so hadn't ran into me ... I would have won.' I don't want to have those excuses, either."
Hornish or Castroneves?
Either way, the championship will be in good hands.
Fear the turtle
When Donnie Neuenberger's Busch Grand National car hits the race track Saturday at Dover International Speedway, there will be a lot of winners even before the MBNA America 200 begins.
The University of Maryland "Fear the Turtle" Busch car is part of a fund-raising program to benefit the university, Maryland athletics and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources "Terrapin Station" program, an education and stewardship program designed to protect the diamondback terrapin and its habitat.
Funds will be raised for all three entities through the sale of merchandise associated with the car. It is the same program as that in which royalties earned from "Fear the Turtle" trademark merchandise of the university's mascot are given toward the protection of its namesake.
The car also will run in the NASCAR season opener at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in February 2003.
"I am very proud to have been a resident of the state of Maryland my whole life," Neuenberger said. "What better way to celebrate Maryland championships than to promote the school and programs with our NASCAR fans."
There will also be a "Fear the Turtle" 1:24 scale die-cast replica car and a "Maryland Racing" T-shirt. For more information, visit the DGN Racing web site at www.dgnracing.com.
Can Kenseth make it five?
Sponsored by Towson-based DeWalt, Winston Cup driver Matt Kenseth won his fourth race of the season last weekend in Richmond, Va. Today, in Loudon, N.H., he could make it five.
"Last year, we could hardly run in the top 20." Kenseth said. "It is about the cars I drive and the way they are built. ... I am really looking forward to Loudon. We had a great racecar there in July and ran over a piece of gravel or something with nine laps to go and got a flat tire. We not only lost the lead, we ended up 33rd. ... The past two times there, we had really fast cars. I think we might have a shot at it."
If he can pull it off, he'd become the series' season leader in wins.
Outlaws are coming
The Pennzoil World of Outlaws will stop at Hagerstown Speedway on Sept. 26.
Steve Kinser sits on top of the standings after 56 events and hopes he will win his 17th "A" main feature of the year. But to do it, the man who is known as "The King of the Outlaws" will have to end a dry spell at the track that dates to May 1994.
Stevie Smith of New Oxford, Pa., will be at Hagerstown with many of the central Pennsylvania super sprint drivers in the Outlaws' last visit of the year.
Race time is 8 p.m., with gates opening at 5. Reserve grandstand tickets and general admission tickets are on sale.
The 27th Turbo-Blue Hub-City National 150 is set for Friday and Saturday nights. Top late model drivers from around the country are to battle in the longest late model race of the year.