De Ferran gets job done in Firestone 200

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
GLADEVILLE -- The only thing better for Gil de Ferran than picking his new guitar is a swig of milk.
This year's Indianapolis 500 winner added to a terrific 2003 season taking the win in the Firestone 200 Indy Racing League event Saturday night at Nashville Superspeedway.
"It was fantastic, a total team effort," said the Brazilian, who sang in victory lane after receiving a symbolic guitar as a trophy. "We overcame some problems on the first pit stop. What a fantastic night for us."
A late-race caution for a spin by Buddy Lazier added some concern for de Ferran, but second-place finisher Scott Dixon couldn't make a serious run at him. The race ended under caution four laps later when Lazier crashed at the exit of turn two, giving de Ferran a fourth career IRL Series win.
"We tried our best," said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Toyota-powered machine. "I'm actually glad for that late race caution. We would have probably blown our right rear (tire), otherwise. I was happy to see that last caution as Helio was coming up pretty fast."
The Helio referred to is third place finisher Helio Castroneves, de Ferran's Penske Racing teammate. Castroneves made a pass with five laps to go to get by rookie Dan Wheldon to record the last podium finish.
"I was hoping for more cautions," said Castroneves. "That was the only way for you to take advantage and try to pass someone. That's what I did to Wheldon.
"It was a tough race, but the fact Gil won helps. It was a good night for me. I will take a third place finish smiling, just not smiling as much as my teammate."
With the first four finishers of the race from foreign countries, the top ranking American driver was defending race winner Alex Barron in fifth.
Over the first half of the race, a charge from 20th place to 1st over the first half of the race by two-time defending series champion Sam Hornish Jr. was the key story.
Hornish dispatched of Barron on lap 90, then passed both the first and second-place machines of Tony Kanaan and Takagi on lap 97.
It marked the first laps Hornish had led all season. To emphasize, how badly he and the other Chevrolet teams had been running, earlier in the day, it was announced Chevrolet would get a new engine package the next IRL race.
Hornish's efforts to win on this night wasn't hampered by an underpowered motor, but instead by racing luck. After pitting on lap 100, he soon went a lap down when Vitor Meira crashed on lap 108.
Dixon, who had led flag-to-flag in the last IRL race at Richmond, started the race from the pole with a speed of 206.211 miles per hour. He paced the first 13 circuits around the 1.3-mile oval before de Ferran took command.
The eventual race winner stayed in front until Buddy Rice tapped Vitor Meira on lap 30 to bring out a caution.
Pit strategy that followed took the top spot from de Ferran and gave a short-lived lead to former series champion Scott Sharp. Kanaan blew by Sharp on lap 34 and held the lead until Hornish's lap 97 heroics.
One of the most scariest moments of the night didn't happen on the race track, but in the pits when the fuel hose stuck on Greg Ray's car and the methanol caught fire behind the driver's head. His crew quickly doused the flame to bring the driver to safety. He returned to the track to post a 16th-place finish.
With the victory in a Honda powered machine, de Ferran broke a two-year stranglehold on Nashville IRL wins by Chevrolets. De Ferran also closed in the series point standings now trailing Kanaan by only 14 points after nine races.
The race offered 10 lead changes by eight drivers and was an average speed of 137.679 mph after being slowed eight times by caution periods for 56 laps.
The series now shifts to the fastest track on the tour, the 2-mile Michigan Speedway next weekend.