RICHMOND, VA. Sam Hornish Jr. and his team couldn't have planned the end of the SunTrust Indy Challenge better if they tried.
Hornish blew by Gil de Ferran on the inside of the first turn with less than two laps to go Saturday night and handed the vaunted Penske team a bitter loss, while reinforcing a point he's been making all week.
The Penske teams, dominant through the first seven races of their first season in the IRL, can be beaten if the other teams just believe.
"We think we're a championship quality team," Hornish said. "We think we're a winning team, and all we have to do is go out there and prove it."
Hornish did it in dramatic fashion, passing Felipe Giaffone in a three-car battle for second on the 246th lap, then reeling in de Ferran, the polesitter who had led 168 laps and seemed destined to win.
"This is awesome for my confidence," Hornish said.
The pass on Giaffone was "like Driver's Ed" for the winning one, Hornish said. "You just had to do it before you could do the other part."
Hornish got underneath de Ferran in the front straightaway, pulled ahead entering the first turn and raced away to win by 1.8323 seconds.
"I didn't know I could pass him until I did," Hornish said.
It was the defending series champion's sixth career victory and third this season, and came only one day after he crashed in practice at Richmond International Raceway, the shortest track the IRL races.
The repairs, he said, continued into the race, which started with him hoping he had a top-10 car and improved to get him thinking victory.
"The best 50 laps that the car handled was the last 50 laps, and that's just how we wanted to play it," Hornish said. "The team did an awesome job. They kept making changes, kept making the car better."
De Ferran, the polesitter seeking his second consecutive victory, seemed to have the race in hand when Tomas Scheckter and Giaffone tried to challenge for the lead in the last 50 laps, and neither succeeded.
But once Hornish got by Giaffone, the race was on, and then over.
De Ferran held on to finish second, closing in on the points race, followed by Giaffone, Tomas Scheckter, Al Unser Jr. and Airton Dare.
"It's always sad to lose the lead so late in the race, but at that point, I didn't feel there was much else I could have done," de Ferran said, adding that he could feel his handling fading long before the pass.
"As soon as we started running under green, the car just kept getting looser and looser," de Ferran said. Once Hornish made a bid for the lead, "there was nothing I could do other than throwing him in the grass."
Much like last year, when the three-quarter-mile oval became the shortest track in series history, the race looked a lot like the NASCAR events more familiar to Virginians. The open-wheel cars bumped and banged the wall at a rate far more common among Chevrolets and Fords.
Of the 22 cars that started, only 13 were running at the end. The race was slowed by eight caution flags that covered 94 laps, but ended with 55 laps of green-flag racing, the longest segment of clean racing all night.
Points leader Helio Castroneves was the first to crash, losing his grip coming out of Turn 2 on the eighth lap and hitting the inside wall. The crash put Castroneves behind the wall for 150 laps, but he returned.
Before 57 laps had been run, the cars of Billy Boat, Scott Sharp and George Mack also crashed and were finished. Mack and Boat spun in the same place as Castroneves, and Sharp went around coming out of Turn 4.
Later accidents claimed the likes of Eddie Cheever Jr., in the same spot in Turn 3 where he hit the wall last year, and Sarah Fisher.
The action drew frequent roars from the crowd, estimated at about 30,000, and falloff of about 25 percent from the estimate of a year ago.
Castroneves remained the points leader, but his margin over de Ferran shrank from 32 to three. Hornish is 24 back, and Giaffone is 43 back.