Key stretch of season kicks off

This weekend's Belterra Casino Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway kicks off a stretch of three Indy Racing League events in three weeks. The three events could go a long way toward deciding the IndyCar Series championship and whether it will remain a two-man contest between Tony Kanaan and Buddy Rice.

Kanaan leads Rice by 57 points and Dan Wheldon by 89 points, with 50 points on offer for a race win. Helio Castroneves (120 points back) and his Penske Racing teammate Sam Hornish Jr. (133 points behind) can still talk about their title aspirations, but it will take a major change of fortune for that to happen.

Rice and Rahal Letterman Racing seem to have a small advantage over Kanaan and Andretti Green Racing in terms of sheer speed (Rice leads all drivers with four poles), but Kanaan and his crew have been more consistent (the Brazilian's average finish is 2.9). One thing for certain is that both have maximized the advantage of the Honda engine, which has won nine consecutive IndyCar Series races.

Honda's superiority is most evident on fast, high-banked circuits like Kentucky Speedway. It would be a major surprise if Toyota and Chevrolet have the horsepower to keep up with the top Honda cars on the bumpy 1.5-mile oval, where speeds are expected to reach nearly 215 mph.

Kanaan insists that he and AGR just have to keep doing what they have been doing all year -- running up front, and most importantly, always finishing.

"I'm going to Kentucky with one thing on my mind -- to win the race," Kanaan said. "I still have a long way to go until the end of the championship, and I'm taking everything race by race. I want to keep my momentum and score as many points as possible."

Rice, on the other hand, knows he needs to attack. He may have gleaned a small psychological advantage through his late-race pass of Kanaan for the victory in the Michigan Indy 400 on August 1.

"We have been able to close in on Tony's point lead a little so far, but he is tough and he hasn't finished out of the top five since the opening race," Rice said. "We have to do our best job and go to win races now. But our Pioneer/Argent Honda team is ready for the challenge. They are psyched up for the last six races and so am I."

Looking beyond Kanaan and Rice in terms of the Kentucky race alone, victory could be achieved by one of their teammates. Vitor Meira has shone in his unexpected role for Rahal Letterman and is due to break through for his first IRL win, while Wheldon and Dario Franchitti have also reached victory circle for AGR this year. Other Honda drivers to watch include Adrian Fernandez (Fernandez Racing), Kosuke Matsuura (Super Aguri Fernandez Racing), and Mark Taylor (Access Motorsports).

Penske's Castroneves and Hornish have run closer than anyone else to the Honda pace, but their Toyota-powered Dallaras haven't able to beat the Honda cars. Target/Ganassi Racing's G-Force-Toyotas were somewhat more competitive at Michigan and 2003 IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon is still searching for his first 2004 victory.

"The Target team ran competitively in Michigan, and we'd certainly like to improve on that this weekend in Kentucky," said Dixon. "Our engineers have worked closely with Toyota, and they came through with some gains last race. That should be a big help for the next few races. The Kentucky track is fairly bumpy, and I think that can be an advantage for our G-Force as it prefers the tracks that need more handling."

Last year at Kentucky, Chevrolet introduced its Cosworth-designed Gen IV powerplant and Hornish used it to drive away from the field to a 17-second lead and an eventual victory. This year, with Tomas Scheckter on board, the Pennzoil Panther car hasn't come close to achieving that kind of performance and the South African is another driver who desperately needs a good result.

The Kentucky race is followed in consecutive weeks by events on one-mile ovals at Pikes Peak International Raceway and Nazareth Speedway. If Kanaan can maintain his current 57-point championship advantage on the other side of that set, he will find himself in a comfortable position heading into the season's final three races in September and October.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.