The 2002 Delphi Indy 300 was confirmed as a part of the 2002 Indy Racing League (IRL) schedule for their racing series in June 2001. It was the second consecutive running of the race; it was the 14th race scheduled for 2002 by the IRL, out of 15, and was held at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois on September 8, 2002. At this late stage of the season, Helio Castroneves held the lead in the points standings with 437 points. He was one point ahead of nearest championship rival Gil de Ferran in second, who in turn was seven points in front of Sam Hornish Jr. in third. Felipe Giaffone was fourth on 391 points, 73 ahead of Alex Barron in fifth.
There was one driver change heading into the event.
1999 U.S. F2000 National Champion and two-time winner in the Indy Lights series Dan Wheldon joined Panther Racing to partner Hornish for the final two races of the season. He travelled to Chicagoland Speedway in June to further acquaint himself with IRL. Wheldon said he was looking forward to be associated and working with Panther Racing, and spoke of his feeling it was a good opportunity to learn with the team's personnel. 1999 Indy Racing League champion Greg Ray was hired to drive the No. 20 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car for the rest of the season after asking his former manager A. J. Foyt to be released from his contract. Ray filled the place of the team's regular driver Richie Hearn who broke his foot at the Belterra Casino Indy 300 in August 2002.
Practice and qualifying
Buddy Rice (pictured in 2007)
qualified on the front row of the grid
in second place.
Four practice sessions were held before the Sunday race; two on Friday and Saturday. The first and second sessions lasted 90 minutes, the third 60 minutes and the fourth 30 minutes. The racers were split into two groups, which were each allowed to run laps for half a session. Conditions were warm and sunny for the Friday practice sessions. The first yellow caution flag came out when Hideki Noda's engine failed leaving the fourth turn and stopped on the backstretch; he did not participate in the second session because his team was changing his engine. The second was shown for Giaffone who hit the outside retaining barrier between turns three and four, and Hornish was involved, bending his left-front suspension, his front wing and his chassis tub was punctured. Both drivers were uninjured. Buddy Rice was the session's fastest driver with a time of 24.4578 seconds, ahead of Eddie Cheever Jr. in second, and Billy Boat third. Vítor Meira and Sarah Fisher rounded out the top five.
Hornish's left-front section of his car was repaired for the second session, where he recorded the fastest lap of 24.4910 seconds; Cheever was second and Rice third. Al Unser Jr. and Giaffone followed in the top five. Two caution flags came out for track inspections. The third practice session was held under sunny and warm weather conditions and had Unser set the fastest lap at 24.5953 seconds. He was followed by Rice in second, and Meira came third. Boat was fourth-quickest, and rounding out the top five was Robbie Buhl.
An hour after the third practice session ended, the 25 drivers determined the starting grid through qualifying. Each driver ran two laps, and the competitor with the slowest time failed to qualify. Conditions were sunny and warm. Hornish eclipsed the track record at Chicagoland Speedway, and clinched his second pole position of the season, with a time of 24.5528 seconds. He was joined on the grid's front row by Rice, who recorded a lap 0.0570 seconds slower than Hornish. Unser qualified third and Boat took fourth. Rounding out the top tenwere Cheever, Wheldon, Laurent Rédon, Buhl, and Giaffone. Behind them the rest of the field lined up as de Ferran, Fisher, Jeff Ward, Eliseo Salazar, Airton Daré, Scott Sharp, Tony Renna, Alex Barron, Raul Boesel, Ray, Castroneves, Buddy Lazier, Will Langhorne, George Mack, and Noda. The sole driver not to qualify was Scott Mayer because of fluctuating oil pressure, and the IRL forbade him from participating in the race due to his lack of time on the track. After qualifying, Hornish said he would put forward his strong form into the race, "When we start on the pole and the people were are running with for the championship are 11th and 20th or whatever, it helps out quite a bit."
The final practice session was held on Saturday afternoon in hot weather conditions. The first caution came after eighteen minutes when race officials located debris in turn two. Nine minutes later, Wheldon slowed in the fourth turn with his engine failing, and engaged neutral gear before stopping. Hornish topped the time sheets with a lap of 24.3401 seconds with Unser Jr. in second. Third place went to Rice, and Wheldon placed fourth. Rounding out the top five in the time sheets was Cheever.
The conditions on the grid were dry and sunny. The air temperature was at 86 °F (30 °C) with the track temperature at 113 °F (45 °C) and calm winds. USAC Chaplin Dave Cochran began pre-race ceremonies with an invocation. Singer Elle Gerdes performed the national anthem, and chairman, president, and CEO of the Delphi Corporation J.T. Battenberg commanded the drivers to start their engines. The race began at 12:10 p.m. Central Daylight Time (UTC−05:00). Hornish maintained his pole position advantage to lead the field on the run into the first corner. After starting eleventh, de Ferran was seventh by the start of lap four. Nine laps later, de Ferran overtook Meira in turn two for sixth. The first caution flag was brought out on the next lap when Rédon's engine failed in turn two, and he returned to pit road to retire. During the caution, several drivers chose to make pit stops for fuel and tires. Ward and Noda made a pit stop to have new front wings installed on their cars for aerodynamic purposes. The green flag was shown on lap 25 to resume racing. Hornish held his lead into turn one, but he lost it to Rice who passed him on the inside lane two corners later. De Ferran was now running in fifth by lap 28. Three laps later, Unser lost the third position to Boat in turn one. On the 43rd lap, Unser overtook de Ferran around the outside for fourth place at turn three. On lap 46, Unser used Noda's slower car to pass Hornish for second at turn one.
Unser drew alongside Rice for one lap, and led the field by 0.0375 seconds on the 48th lap. Hornish got by Rice soon after. On lap 52, the second caution flag was shown. De Ferran swerved to avoid Renna's lapped car which slowed with no fuel pressure, and lost control of his vehicle going into turn two due to air catching his front wing. De Ferran heavy clouted the outside wall. His car sustained heavy damage to its right-hand corner, and stopped on the backstretch. Debris from his car landed on the circuit. Safety crews shut off de Ferran's car so the IRL medical team could extract him into the medical helicopter. He was transported to St. James Hospital in Olympia Fields, Illinois with a concussion and a hairline fracture on his left wrist. The field made pit stops for tires, fuel and replacement front wings for aerodynamic reasons during the 22 lap caution. Unser led the field back to green flag racing on the 74th lap. Hornish retook the lead from Unser on the inside lane in the third corner on that lap. On lap 87, Hornish's lead of 0.6869 seconds was reduced to nothing when Salazar's rear wing fell backward; he spun on the backstretch, but no other car came into contact with him, causing the third caution flag. As with the previous two cautions, several drivers made pit stops for fuel, tyres and new front wings for aerodynamic purposes.
On lap 94, racing resumed with Hornish leading the pack of cars into turn one. Castroneves was up to sixth by the 108th lap. Six laps later, the fourth caution flag was necessitated when debris was observed lying on the track Several drivers, including Hornish, went down pit road for tires and fuel. Sharp won the race off pit road, and assumed the lead for the restart on lap 120. On that lap, Boat slowed in turn four with an electrical issue that shut down his engine. He got back to pit road to retire. Hornish and Lazier drew alongside each other at turn two in the battle for second place on the 136th lap. The battle was won by Hornish who passed Lazier for second three laps later. By lap 144, Sharp had been sufficiently gained upon by Hornish who got alongside him for the lead in the fourth turn. Sharp edged him out by 0.0042 seconds on that lap. On the 145th lap, green flag pit stops began with Lazier entering pit road for tires and fuel. Sharp made his pit stop from first six laps later. On lap 153, Daré hit the outside wall on the exit of turn two. His car sustained heavy rear damage but he clambered out without external aid. The crash prompted the fifth (and final) caution flag. Pit stops for fuel and tires continued to be made under caution.
Castroneves led the field into the first turn at the lap 166 restart. On the following lap, Unser became the new leader with Hornish returning to second. Hornish took back the lead from Unser on the 169th lap. On the next lap, Unser attempted to get back past Hornish but the latter responded by blocking his manoeuvre. Unser did manage to overtake Hornish on lap 172 but the latter retook the lead before the start-finish line. Boesel got by Rice and Cheever to move into sixth during lap 173. On the 178th lap, Hornish went up the track slightly, and Unser moved underneath him to lead the lap. Hornish and Unser raced alongside each other and exchanged the lead for the remaining 21 laps but the victory went to Hornish, his fourth of the season, and the seventh of his career. Hornish's margin of victory over Unser was 0.0024 seconds (about 3 in (76 mm)), the closest finish in IRL history. Second went to Unser, Lazier was third, Castroneves came fourth, and Cheever took fifth. Giaffone, Sharp, Meira, Rice, and Wheldon completed the top ten finishers. Behind them, the last of the classified finishers were Boesel, Barron, Mack, and Ray. There were eighteen lead changes amongst four different drivers during the course of the race. Hornish led nine times for a total of 102 laps, more than any other driver.
Hornish appeared in victory lane to celebrate his fourth victory of the season in front of the crowd; he earned $126,600 for winning the race. He said of his success at Chicagoland Speedway, "The fastest way around is to push another car around. But it's really hard to pass when you have to push a car aside. Having a guy that's experienced like Al, and all the races I've been in with him and all the respect I have for him, it's just like a high-speed pace lap." Unser spoke of his enjoyment of competing against Hornish and the duel reminded himself of his close victory over Scott Goodyear in the 1992 Indianapolis 500, "We just came up short again. I honestly thought that we won the race. I thought I had him. It was that close. I tell you, they don't come any closer than that.", and, "That was the closest wheel-to-wheel racing I think you'll see in the country today. There are fenders on those cars down south for a reason, and that's to rub on each other." Third-placed Lazier revealed his team got out of sequence during the fuel pit stops but it later worked in their favor, "We were just running wheel to wheel, as close as you could get. I'd get a run on someone, and my momentum would be stopped, and four or five guys would get by me until I would get my momentum back. But if you're patient and you bide your time, then you'll start picking them off. It was a lot of fun out there, but it sure was hair-raising."
Cheever accused Castroneves of blocking him and intentionally putting him in danger during the final laps of the event, "I want to sit down with (IRL vice president of operations) Brian (Barnhart) and show him the last laps with Helio Castroneves. I want Brian's opinion on whether or not that is blocking. (Castroneves) totally moved me under the white line. Those aren't the rules of the game." Castroneves responded to Cheever by saying, "As far as I'm concerned, my friend, I was racing, I was trying to be there and win the race and, hey, tough luck. In that particular time, he might be frustrated because he couldn't pass the guy and he tried to attack him. I know Eddie and hopefully he doesn't have any hard feelings." Four days after the race, Castroneves and Rice were issued fines of an undisclosed amount of money for transgressing rules 8.1 and 8.3 of the IRL regulations. Barnhardt said of his reasoning in issuing the fines, "What makes this type of racing possible is a code of ethics that's been developed by the drivers and Indy Racing League officials over the past seven years. Both Helio and Buddy displayed actions on the track during the race Sunday that were not appropriate."
De Ferran was released from hospital the day after the race. He was later deemed unfit to compete in the season-closing
Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway that took place one week later by Henry Block, the IRL's director of medical services. Block stated it was more appropriate not to put de Ferran at further risk because of his injuries, "Recovery periods for any type of concussion vary for many reasons, but rarely do symptoms completely disappear in seven to 10 days." De Ferran spoke of his disappointment but said he would respect Block's decision. He was replaced by Championship Auto Racing Teams driver Max Papis for the Chevy 500. With his victory, Hornish became the new leader of the points' standings with 481 points. Castroneves fell to second with 469 points, while his teammate de Ferran was still third with 443 points despite his accident. With 419 and 336 points respectively, Giaffone and Barron rounded out the top five.