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The IRL put on Fontana's best show
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online

Sunday's Yamaha 400 at California Speedway marked the Indy Racing League's first-ever California appearance. Fans who trekked to the two-mile "Inland Empire" speed-plant were treated to an exciting race. But, then again, California Speedway has a reputation for excitement.

Previous CART FedEx Champ car races there have produced their share of "moments," but the IRL took it to another level.

Sam Hornish celebrates his second win of the year.
Many thought that California would be a raw horsepower track. Qualifying confirmed that. But teams found themselves preparing for the 200-lap race with more emphasis upon handling than first anticipated.

At Texas, teams simply tweaked their aero package to the point where drivers can still hold on in a flat-out configuration and rely upon the draft to leave them in a position to advance. At California, teams fiddled with ride heights, rake and suspension, trying to mix the downforce the cars produced with the sweeping corners so that they could maximize their speed production.

When I polled the drivers, many felt that California closer resembled a "stretched out" Kentucky than Texas. The draft was still a big factor and so was horsepower, but so was chassis setup.

Experience at Fontana provided little advantage to some of the former CART teams (Penske, Blair and Mo Nunn Racing) and the current one (Team Rahal's Jimmy Vasser, who used the "400" as an R&D tune-up for his Indy 500 appearance). CART's use of the Handford device on the two-miler produced such a different set of handling issues that these teams found themselves dealing with the same issues as the rest of the IRL operations who were running their first-ever two-mile oval.

In the end, it was Sam Hornish Jr. and his Pennzoil Panther pack winning yet another race. Instead of Helio Castroneves, Hornish dueled with Jaques Lazier and Team Menard. Both of these teams use an identical engine-chassis package of Dallara-Speedway Engines prepared Chevrolets.

When Eddie Cheever Jr. put his Red Bull special on the pole, many theorized that the horsepower advantage belonged to Infiniti. But long before Cheever retired in a plume of engine smoke nine laps from the end, Chevy had shown that they were not about to give the race to their competition.

What was fascinating was how the Chevys built by Ilmore Engineering for the Penske and Kelley Racing entries struggled. They never were a real factor. Scott Sharp led for a brief time but faded when Cheever, Hornish and Lazier started their march back to the front after pit stops.

The Yamaha 400 produced another exciting chapter for the IRL. We learned that this year's chase will not be just about Panther and Penske. We saw the type of racing that the IRL's tight rules package can produce. We were teased by Infiniti power and introduced to a new front-runner.

Lost in the late lap heroics at the top of the running order was the come-from-behind performance of Laurent Redon. The Mi-Jack chauffeur rebounded from a stalled engine during an early pit stop to finish third in just his fifth IRL start and delivered a podium finish for Infiniti.

Hornish's margin of victory of .0281 of a second was the second-closest finish in IRL history. Last October, Hornish beat Sharp by .0188 of a second in the Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

As teams loaded up following the race, a crewman for Al Unser Jr.'s Corteco operation provided the ultimate summation of the IRL's California experience.

"Wow," he said wide-eyed. "I can't wait for Michigan!"

Jack Arute writes a column every Monday for ABC Sports Online.  HELP |  ADVERTISER INFO |  CONTACT US |  TOOLS |  SITE MAP
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 Sam Hornish Jr. and Jaques Lazier's battle led to the second closest finish in IRL history.
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 Sam Hornish Jr. recaps his victory at Fontana, Calif.
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 Jaques Lazier is satisfied with a second-place finish and the impact it will have in the weeks to come.
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