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Taking His Track

Times Staff Writer

So much for the theory about local knowledge being significant in motor racing.

Roger Penske, whose cars have won more Indy car-type races than anyone, built the California Speedway for $120 million eight years ago on the ruins of the old Kaiser steel mill in Fontana, yet his cars have not won an open-wheel race there.

“This better be it this week, I’m running out of time,” said Penske as he watched one of his drivers, Helio Castroneves, win the pole Saturday for today’s Toyota Indy 400 with a 217.479 mph lap. “We’ve done about everything else but. This is a funny business. Sometimes you can’t help from winning, and some places you just can’t seem to do it.”

In the years since the speedway opened in 1997, Penske cars have won three Indianapolis 500s despite missing four years because of the acrimonious split between CART and the Indy Racing League. Since moving to the IRL in 2002, his Marlboro Team Penske drivers have won two championships and 10 races.

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But no wins at the track he built.

“Hey, don’t forget, we won a stock car race here,” he said. Rusty Wallace won the 2001 Winston Cup race in a Penske Ford.

Despite the lack of wins, the Penske stamp has been apparent in the record book at the two-mile D-shaped oval.

Castroneves’ pole was his second in a row at California Speedway, his fourth of the IRL season and the 148th for Penske’s team.

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Gil de Ferran set the world’s closed-course record of 241.428 mph in qualifying for the 2000 Marlboro 400. De Ferran, who won the 2000 and 2001 CART championships and the 2003 Indy 500, retired at the end of the season.

“It’s hard to believe that it has been five years since Gil set the closed-course record there and it would be exciting to see Roger get his first IndyCar win at a facility which he put so much work into developing,” said Tim Cindric, Penske Racing president.

As De Ferran’s replacement, Penske tabbed Sam Hornish Jr., who was coming off consecutive IRL championships with Panther Racing. Hornish has won the last two races at California Speedway.

Hornish qualified third for today’s race with a 216.062 lap. Scott Dixon, defending IRL champion, will start alongside Castroneves on the front row after a 216.301 lap.

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“I’m looking forward to Sunday’s race and getting Marlboro Team Penske back in the winner’s circle,” said Hornish. “The race is all about making the right move at the right time, getting through the first 380 miles and then fighting it out over the last 10 laps.”

Hornish won from the 10th starting spot last year and from fourth the year before. In ceremonies before today’s racing, he will be enshrined in the California Speedway Walk of Fame.

Four Toyotas grabbed the front two rows, quite a contrast from the way they have finished in 14 IRL races. Since Hornish won the opener at Homestead-Miami, Honda-powered cars have won every race.

“What we do to the car for pole day is different from what he do for the race,” Castroneves said in explaining the disparity.

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“For qualifying we trim the car down and eliminate as much downforce as possible to get the drag off the car. It’s great for one or two laps but we can’t run that setup during the race. The tires couldn’t take it and probably the engine too. Unfortunately, Honda is very much stronger on longer runs.”

The fastest Honda on Saturday was owner-driver Adrian Fernandez, who got 215.270 from his car, the same one he won with two weeks ago in Chicago.

One Honda that wasn’t strong was the one Michael Andretti fielded for series points leader Tony Kanaan. Needing only to finish fourth or better to clinch the championship today, the Brazilian will start from the rear of the 22-car field after engine problems prevented him from taking a timed lap.

“You know, there are days like this, and we haven’t had one all year, so I don’t think I can complain,” said Kanaan, who has won three races this year.

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“Thank God it happened now. I’d be much more upset if it had happened tomorrow.”

After the Andretti Green Racing crew installed a new engine, Kanaan took part in the final practice session and had the 11th-fastest time.

“I won a 500-mile race [in Michigan] from a lap down and my guys said today, ‘Hey, you haven’t started in the back and moved to the front this year as you did last year, so we think it’s time for you to show us again.’ ”

Darren Manning, after qualifying fourth on his first lap, crashed on the second lap of his qualifying run and was taken to Loma Linda Hospital after complaining of back pains. Team officials said Manning would not drive today’s race.

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The Facts

INDY RACING LEAGUE

Toyota Indy 400

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* Where: Today, California Speedway (D-shaped oval, 2 miles, 14 degrees banking in turns), Fontana.

* Race distance: 400 miles, 200 laps.


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