Alex Barron raises his hand in triumph after edging Sam Hornish, Jr., by 0.121 seconds, the fourth-closest race in IRL history.
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BROOKLYN, Mich. - Second place is never good enough. But yesterday it was very good - or maybe even great - for the beleaguered troops racing under the Chevrolet banner on the Indy Racing League circuit.
Sam Hornish, Jr., finished second in the Firestone Indy 400 at Michigan International Speedway, but he brought home the prize for all of the Chevy drivers. Hornish led for 126 of the 200-lap race, and was edged by just two feet at the finish line by winner Alex Barron, but his run was still a success and a highly symbolic one.
Hornish was powered in the race by a hybrid Cosworth engine called the Generation IV. After watching cars powered by Honda and Toyota win every race this season, Chevy petitioned the IRL to use the new engine, and Hornish was the first to try it.
He surged past pole-sitter Tomas Scheckter on the first lap, built a lead of as much as 7.8 seconds during the race, and essentially showed the Indy Racing League world that Chevy is back.
“I knew from the first time we ran this Generation IV that it was so much faster than what we had been using,'' Hornish said. “We knew what it was going to take to get back up to the front, and we knew from the first time we ran it that it was going to be a good engine.''
It was almost the best. Hornish engaged Barron in a dogfight over the final 20 laps, and held the lead on the final five until Barron pulled up next to him going into the last turn in the dash to the checkered flag and then nudged past him at the finish line.
The margin of victory was one hundred and twenty one thousandths of a second - the fourth-closest finish in Indy Racing League history.
“It was a great race,'' Hornish said. “Alex - he just timed it right. He worked on it for about the last 20 laps - he kept coming up and dropping back - and I knew that one of those times he was going to get it right, and he happened to get it right on the last lap. He saved it for the end, and that's what you're supposed to do.''
Hornish, who was born in Bryan and makes his home in Defiance, had to hold off Scheckter and his Target/Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon for the better part of the race, and those two had the lead for a total of 45 laps through the course of the event. Other challenges came from Tony Kanaan and Al Unser Jr., but Hornish stayed near the front and was involved in most of the 30 lead changes.
“It felt good to be back up running at the front of the pack,'' Hornish said. “Right now, I'm about as happy as I could be, outside of winning the race. With the fact that the new engine debuted as well as it did, and gave us no problems at all, and we ran up front and led a whole bunch of laps - we really did everything we could do.''
Hornish said he did not feel any added pressure despite the fact he was carrying Chevy's fortunes with him. He said that as the winner of the IRL season points race the past two years, his own expectations are always very high.
“I feel that we always carry the banner for Chevrolet since we've won the past two championships, and Chevy is such a key part of our team,'' Hornish said. ``I feel that we always have to elevate ourselves to be the best, no matter what equipment we have, and in spite of the equipment we have.
“Today was just another case of that. The engine ran flawless all day long, and it was a shame that we came up a little bit short. It is great that Chevrolet was willing to go out there and get what we needed to be able to be competitive. I'm really glad it worked out that way.''
For the better part of the race, it looked like Hornish would take Chevy right into the winner's circle. Hornish led from laps 52-105, and then from laps 114-147. He was sitting on a 7.8-second cushion when a caution flag for debris came out, sending most of the cars to the pits.
Hornish got caught in a squeeze of cars exiting the pits, and was sixth when he got back on the track.
“It didn't really have any effect on the outcome of the race,'' Hornish said. “It was just a case of five cars being in the space where only three could fit.''
Hornish got back to the front about 12 laps later, and then Barron escaped disaster while battling for the lead with Hornish and Scheckter. As Barron tried to maneuver behind Hornish, he tapped one of Scheckter's tires and spun around on the track. But he avoided hitting anything, and as the caution flag came out, Barron got his car back in line and jumped back in the fray.
“I tried to keep the car down low, but it seemed like Scheckter came down just enough to where it rubbed my right front,'' Barron said. “You know, it just happened. That's the way it goes. I didn't know how it was going to turn out from then on, but the car didn't get damaged and we were able to move forward from there.''
Hornish was in the lead on the re-start after Barron's close call, and the two engaged in a sparring match with Scheckter the rest of the way. Barron took the lead from Hornish on lap 194, but Hornish grabbed it back, only to see the Californian edge past him at the end.
“What I had to do was keep him behind me, but there was not a lot I could do,'' Hornish said. “There is no blocking in this series, there's no moving to impede the progress of another car, so I knew that I had to pick my line and hope that he didn't get the run exactly right on the last lap, and he had it.''
Hornish said he looks forward to the rest of the IRL season, now that the Gen IV has passed a major test under fire.
“This definitely changes things for us, and for all of the Chevy teams,'' Hornish said. “There is no doubt that the Generation IV engine has more torque than what we were dealing with at the beginning of the year, and this has helped me and my team be better as far as knowing what the car needs and being better able to use it. It would have been nice to win this race, but we came real close. The new engine did its part, and we go on from here with a real optimistic feeling about the rest of the season.''