As the 2006 IRL IndyCar Series season entered its final stages, a tight championship battle was ensuing between Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves and Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon.
But in the penultimate race of the year at Sonoma Raceway, their ongoing pursuit of the IRL title was overshadowed as third-generation driver Marco Andretti notched his first career IndyCar win on the technical Northern California road course.
It took some risk and luck for the son of Michael and grandson of Mario to break through and become the youngest driver ever to win a major American open-wheel event.
On Lap 44, Andretti pitted his No. 26 Andretti Green Racing Honda and then chose to stay on track when a caution came out at Lap 51. That forced the then-19-year-old driver to save fuel later on in the closing laps of the race.
A win for Andretti was very much in doubt, but with less than 10 laps left and AGR teammate Dario Franchitti closing in on him, another AGR driver, Bryan Herta, spun out at Turn 7 to trigger a caution.
That helped ease Andretti’s fuel issues, and he was able to hold off Franchitti in the end to secure his inaugural victory.
“I knew that Dario [Franchitti] is normally the king of saving fuel,” Andretti said. “After he got by Tony [Kanaan], I knew it definitely wasn’t over, and he would push me hard during the final laps.
“I had to run some pretty fast laps at the end, but we just needed to stay consistent, save the tires and fuel, and it all worked out.”
Meanwhile, some of his fellow competitors wondered if Herta had done his team a solid with his late spin.
“There’s no doubt he spun on purpose,” Wheldon said after the race according to ESPN’s John Oreovicz. “Bryan definitely took one for the team today and that’s not how any race should be decided.”
For his part, Herta denied the accusations, maintaining that he simply got on the throttle too early going into Turn 7 before looping his No. 7 Honda around.
While that debate raged, Castroneves’ fifth-place finish enabled him to take a one-point lead over Hornish going into the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway.
In the Windy City, however, it was Hornish who drove away with his third IRL crown. Wheldon won that race, with teammate Dixon in second, Hornish in third, and Castroneves in fourth.
But the result brought Hornish and Wheldon into a tie atop the standings, and Hornish claimed the title via tiebreaker – his four race wins trumping Wheldon’s two.
As for Andretti, he’d have to wait until 2011 before he added his second IndyCar race win at Iowa Speedway.
The IndyCars return to Sonoma Raceway this Sunday for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra for your online and mobile devices.