Fernandez Keeps the Winning Edge

Times Staff Writer

The Toyotas had the speed, but the Hondas had the staying power and the Toyota Indy 400 finished in a Honda shootout between Adrian Fernandez and Tony Kanaan on Sunday in Fontana.

Helio Castroneves, the pole-sitter in one of Roger Penske’s Toyota-powered machines, led 145 of the 200 laps, blistering the two-mile California Speedway oval at speeds of 214 mph lap after lap.

As the boring Indy Racing League race neared completion before an estimated 35,000 open-wheel racing fans, Castroneves began to fade and the Hondas charged ahead. After a yellow caution flag almost ended the race prematurely, a final one-lap shootout finished with Fernandez in front of Kanaan by 0.0183 seconds -- about the width of a fender.


Both were winners. Fernandez won the race, his third in the last five, and Kanaan won the championship, the first in his career and the first in Michael Andretti’s two-year career as a car owner.

It was Honda’s 14th consecutive IRL win this season.

“I never though the [IRL officials] were really going to get the restart in, but they did a fantastic job on restarting,” said Fernandez, who is the only driver-owner in the series and one of the most popular athletes on the Mexican sports scene.

Kanaan and Fernandez had been battling for the lead for about 10 laps when, with six to go, Czech rookie Tomas Enge spun and was hit by South African Tomas Scheckter in Turn 4. Both cars slid to a stop in the infield, but the track was covered with debris.

It appeared that the race might end on a yellow flag, but after four slow laps parading around the track, the pace car pulled off and the race resumed with two miles to go.

Fernandez, at 41 the oldest IRL regular driver, got the jump on Kanaan as the cars drove through the first turn side by side, the Mexican in a G Force on the outside, the Brazilian in a Dallara on the inside. All around the track the cars were so close that it was impossible to say which was ahead.

“On the restart, I got sideways, I put so much power down,” said Fernandez. “I lost the rear-end a bit. The tires were really covered by rubber. I was really concerned about that, but coming into turns one and two I knew I couldn’t lift. I knew I had to stay beside Tony. And the car was there. And his was there at the end too.”


In the battle of Hondas, Tom Anderson, managing director of Fernandez Racing, credited their G Force chassis as the difference.

“Since we were going Honda on Honda on that last lap, I think we’ve got to thank G Force for a little bit less drag on that deal because we didn’t win by much,” Anderson said.

And what of Castroneves, who appeared to have a wire-to-wire win in hand for the first 350 miles?

In the mad scramble for position after three late yellow flags, he slipped all the way back to seventh.

“It was great to be out front leading, and all was under control,” said the two-time Indy 500 winner. “Unfortunately, the end wasn’t what we were hoping for. The yellows at the end were really tough on us. I’m not sure what was wrong on the restarts.”

It was another disappointment for Penske, who built the California Speedway eight years ago and has yet to see one of his cars win an open-wheel race on the Fontana track.


Dan Wheldon, one of Kanaan’s Andretti Green teammates, finished third.

Curiously, in the world of racing where track position sometimes dictates who helps who more than being a teammate does, Fernandez credited Wheldon, a second-year driver from England, with helping him catch the leaders.

“We were working, Dan and I, I’ll tell you that,” said Fernandez. “I mean, he knew I had a little stronger car, so he had to sit down and help me help him go to the front. We were catching them. We were 11 or 12 seconds behind the leaders and we kept cutting it down. But we were working together. We were working the traffic, we were working everything. I have to congratulate Dan because he’s a tremendous driver, very smart.”

Sam Hornish Jr., a Castroneves teammate, was fourth in the first Toyota to finish. Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice, who was one of Castroneves’ closest challengers through the early going, was fifth, and Dario Franchitti, another of the Andretti crew, came in sixth.

Kanaan, after clinching the IRL title with a race remaining Oct. 17 at Texas Motor Speedway, said his objective now is help Wheldon finish second in points. After Sunday’s race, he is 25 ahead of Rice with Fernandez another 58 behind.

For the first couple of hundred miles, the only excitement was watching Kanaan come from the rear of the field to the front. He started last because an engine failure prevented him from taking a qualifying speed Saturday.

At the green flag, he stormed past six cars in the 21-car field and five more on the next lap. By the seventh lap he was up to fourth, behind only Fernandez, Castroneves and Wheldon.


Fernandez, who moved up to the second row after Darren Manning crashed in late practice Saturday and had to withdraw from his fourth starting position, showed some early speed by passing Castroneves and Scott Dixon on the first lap. Dixon, last year’s IRL champion, was never a contender and finished eighth.

The down-powered Chevrolets again failed to respond to the challenge of the Japanese manufacturers. The first Chevy was Townsend Bell, the former San Luis Obispo karter, in ninth.

The win was worth $102,400 for Fernandez, who led only 18 laps, one of which was the one that mattered most. His average speed of 178.826 mph was relatively slow because three caution flags near the end of the race were for 20 laps, one less than Kanaan would have liked.