INDYCAR SERIES Bred New Stars, Tighter Competition Than Ever in 2000s

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Two decades ago, INDYCAR SERIES racing began producing a new wave of talent that carries the NTT INDYCAR SERIES today.

Scott Dixon was then a newcomer to North America’s top form of open-wheel racing, racing with PacWest before starting his run with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2002. Dixon’s Indianapolis 500 rookie class included two other future winners of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” – Buddy Rice (2004) and Dan Wheldon (2005, 2011). Dixon earned his “500” victory in 2008.

The 2000s, which INDYCAR.com is featuring, saw the emergence of future INDYCAR SERIES champions Sam Hornish Jr., Sebastien Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud. It provided a global stage for Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick.

It was the decade where Helio Castroneves and Cristiano da Matta won their first races, and where Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy won their last races.

The decade offered some of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s most memorable moments, including Castroneves’ first fence climb (2001), Patrick’s late pass of Wheldon that sent the crowd into a frenzy (2005) and Hornish’s last-second overtaking of Marco Andretti (2006). Even the sight of Rice (2004) and Dario Franchitti (2007) splashing to Victory Lane through the rain live in the annals of race history.

Castroneves nearly three-peated at IMS, denied by Gil de Ferran’s 2003 win that gave Team Penske a rare three straight wins. Bourdais won four consecutive Champ Car World Series championships (2004-2007). Streaks added up.

Da Matta (2002) and Bourdais (2006) won four consecutive Champ Car races, the most in succession since Alex Zanardi did likewise in 1998. Wheldon won four of the first five of the 2005 INDYCAR season, including the “500,” en route to the season title. Tracy, Wheldon, Bourdais, AJ Allmendinger and Dixon won three races in a row, and Bourdais did it three times.

The 2000s saw unification of the sport. The march to become one began with Chip Ganassi’s organization winning the “500” in 2000 with Juan Pablo Montoya’s dominating run. Roger Penske’s outfit followed, then the team now known as Andretti Autosport and others. By 2008, the sport was officially whole.

INDYCAR’s 2007 season was particularly dramatic. Franchitti edged Dixon for the championship at Chicagoland Speedway when Dixon’s leading car ran out of fuel in Turn 3 of the last lap. A month earlier, Franchitti couldn’t have imagined being in such a position. In a six-day period, his car spectacularly flipped upside twice, first at Michigan Speedway in a crash that included Dixon, and then at Kentucky Speedway when he ran over the back of Kosuke Matsuura coming to the checkered flag.

Competition become closer than ever in the 2000s. Five of the six closest finishes in INDYCAR SERIES history occurred during the decade, including the top four. Freight trains of cars running side-by-side on ovals became common, with winning margins as scant as Hornish’s all-time record gap of .0024 of a second over Unser at Chicagoland Speedway.

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES not only debuted its first street race in 2005, but Andretti Autosport drivers swept the first four finishing positions at St. Petersburg, a feat not accomplished before or since.

Statistically, Bourdais was the most successful of the 2000s, with 31 race wins and four championships. Dixon won 22 races, two season titles and the “500” while Hornish won 19 races, three championships (with two different teams) and Indy. Castroneves also 22 races, putting his likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy three times. Franchitti won 17 races, captured season titles on either side of his one-year NASCAR foray, and he won the “500.”

Fifty drivers won the 284 races, including the father-and-son Andrettis (Michael and Marco), the Lazier brothers (Buddy and Jaques) and Patrick, the first woman to reach victory lane.

The 2000s were bookended by Robbie Buhl’s win at Walt Disney World Speedway and Franchitti capping the 2009 season with a championship-deciding victory at Homestead.

A classic decade it was.

Sebastien BourdaisSEASON CHAMPIONS

4: Sebastien Bourdais

3: Sam Hornish Jr.

2: Gil de Ferran, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon

1: Buddy Lazier, Cristiano da Matta, Paul Tracy, Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon

RACE WINS

31: Sebastien Bourdais

22: Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon

19: Sam Hornish Jr.

17: Dario Franchitti

16: Paul Tracy

15: Dan Wheldon

13: Tony Kanaan

12: Cristiano da Matta

8: Bruno Junqueira

7: Gil de Ferran

6: Buddy Lazier, Adrian Fernandez, Justin Wilson

5: Scott Sharp, Ed Carpenter, Kenny Brack, AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Briscoe

4: Michael Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power

3: Max Papis, Al Unser Jr., Buddy Rice, Ryan Hunter-Reay

2: Gil de Ferran, Roberto Moreno, Jimmy Vasser, Eddie Cheever Jr., Greg Ray, Mario Dominguez, Alex Barron, Tomas Scheckter, Michel Jourdain Jr., Robert Doornbos, Bryan Herta

1: Christian Fittipaldi, Robbie Buhl, Scott Goodyear, Airton Dare, Jeff Ward, Jaques Lazier, Felipe Giaffone, Alex Tagliani, Oriol Servia, Marco Andretti, Nelson Philippe, Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick

From the fans