IRL IndyPro title to be decided at track known for close racing

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Four drivers separated by 27 points. A racetrack that one year ago had six cars separated by 9 1/2 car lengths at the checkered flag. How fitting that the closest championship battle in Indy Pro Series history will be decided at a racetrack notorious for close finishes.

Jay Howard, Jonathan Klein, Bobby Wilson and Wade Cunningham will battle for 67 laps at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 9. One will walk away with the Firestone Firehawk Cup.

Howard has the edge on his competitors, leading Klein by eight points, Wilson by 24 and Cunningham by 27. It's the first time in Indy Pro Series history that four drivers have gone into the season's final race eligible to win the championship, and the eight-point difference between first and second is the smallest ever.

Even though he's a rookie, and new to oval racing, Howard has success on the two other 1.5-mile tracks this season, winning the pole in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway in March and winning the race at Kentucky Speedway in August. "Yeah, obviously that's good," said Howard, who drives the No. 7 Lucas Oil/Isilon car for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. "I hadn't really thought about that, to be honest. I know the car is going to be pretty good there. The guys tested one of the rookies there a few weeks back. He was fast. But I'm in the car, and with my experience I'm sure we'll go a little bit faster.

"I know Wade and Jonathan, several other guys, are going to be all up there. It's going to be close. We're going to run in a pack. Yeah, I believe we can put on a good show for the fans. Hopefully I can win the championship."

The closest competition for Howard is Klein, a 19-year-old rookie from Long Grove, Ill., which is just 50 miles from the track. Klein drives the No. 26 Klein Tools/Turn-Key Forging car for Andretti Green Racing, but is essentially a teammate of Howard's due to a partnership between Andretti Green and Sam Schmidt Motorsports. While Howard was the polesitter at Homestead, Klein started second. At Kentucky, Klein was on the pole and finished second.

"I'm sure we're going to end up with pretty much identical cars," Howard said. "We'll just see what happens. I don't know, hopefully I can win obviously. It's definitely going to be close."

Said Klein: "I think we'll be teammates until the checkered flag. There's not going to be any funny business during the entire weekend. There won't be any of that going on between Jay and myself. I'll treat him with the same respect that I would treat everyone else. I'm going to race him damn hard, but I'm not going to put ourselves in a situation where we can get ourselves into trouble."

"My game plan is going to be pretty much run mistake-free," continued Klein, who has nine top-five finishes in 11 starts. "I think it's going to come down to, as we saw at Kentucky, Wade, Jaime (Camara), Jay, myself, even a few other guys, are all capable of running up front, equal with each other. I think it's going to come down to a game who makes the least amount of mistakes."

With his deficit at a mere eight points, a variety of scenarios allow Klein to win the championship - even if he finishes as low as ninth. That would not satisfy him.

"Winning the race, that's my goal before I start worrying about the championship," Klein said. "I don't want to be a championship winner while not being a race winner. That wouldn't be very impressive to myself. I'd kind of be frustrated by that."

While they are mathematically still eligible to win the championship, the scenarios for doing so aren't as kind to Wilson or Cunningham. Both essentially need first- or second- place finishes in the race and for Howard and Klein to finish in the back half of the field.

Wilson, however, isn't racing just for himself. In addition to racing for the driver championship, Wilson hopes to bring home the entrant championship to Kenn Hardley Racing. The team leads those point standings by si

x over Sam Schmidt Motorsports. "I'm being really optimistic and hope things fall my way," said Wilson, whose average finish is sixth in five oval races this season. "My past experiences on ovals have not proven to be very stellar, but I guess the team pretty much is going to try to pull out all the stops this weekend, put a good car on the track."

Cunningham, the reigning series champion, never had championship aspirations this season, especially after missing two races in March due to an emergency appendectomy.

"We came into the year not talking about the championship," Cunningham said. "We just wanted to win individual races and be fast. We've achieved nearly all of our goals so far. You look at four poles, and we've won two races, which is equal to anyone else this year. We've had a good year.

"Just want to top it off by having another good race at Chicago. The championship isn't really in my mind now at all."

"I definitely have to say Jay has an advantage," said Cunningham, summing up the championship battle. "We're all going to be at the front. It's not a secret. It's just really going to come down to who races the best."

Information courtesy of Tim Harms - Indy Racing League
www.indycar.com .

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