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Carpenter wins closest race in Ky. Speedway history but will IndyCar Series return to Kentucky in 2012?

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By Dave Taylor

Ed Carpenter, driving Sarah Fisher Racing’s Dollar General-sponsored car, ran down series point leader Dario Franchitti in the waning laps of Sunday’s IZOD Indycar Series race at Sparta’s Kentucky Speedway to win the “Kentucky Indy 300.”

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Carpenter’s 0.0098 of a second winning margin marked the IZOD Indycar Series’ closest finish in 12 years of racing at the Kentucky track. Carpenter, whose winning average speed was 174.039 miles per hour, ran the fastest lap of the race (lap 73) at 219.946 mph. It was Carpenter’s first career win and follows two consecutive years of runnerup finishes at Kentucky.

“It took me 113 tries to get here,” Carpenter said in a post-race meeting with the media. “I’ve been working at it a long time. I’m just going to enjoy it.”

The win was also the first for team owner Fisher, a longtime IndyCar Series driver who sat this season out while expecting her first child. Fisher delivered a baby girl three weeks ago. She was asked if winning as an owner is as special as if she had been in the driver’s seat at the checkered flag.

“Is it just as special? It absolutely is,” she said. “I cannot be happier and more proud of the group that we’ve assembled to accomplish this today.” She had high praise for Carpenter who has been a longtime family friend. “He’s a very talented individual, especially on ovals.”

Carpenter came from third place to second on the final restart after a caution flag slowed the field from laps 166 to 177 of the 200-lap event. A few laps later Carpenter had pulled even with Franchitti who led 143 laps of the 200-lap event.

“During that last yellow I was just trying to save fuel,” Carpenter said. “I got a good start on the restart and I just thought I would kind of hang out with Dario and get away from the rest of the guys. Then I got on the outside of him and was able to stay there. I learned a lot from the race in 2009 that helped me today to come back and finish off the race.”

Carpenter had trailed Penske driver Ryan Briscoe by 0.0162 of a second at the finish of the 2009 race at Kentucky.

Carpenter edged past Franchitti to briefly take the lead at the end of lap 188. The two exchanged the lead three more times over the last 11 laps to thrill the sun-baked crowd.

“I’d been setting it up the last 10 laps,” Carpenter said. “I used my push to pass twice and both times I used them I beat him to the line. Once we got to that last straightaway our Honda motor took over. The guys made great changes on the car all day long. It was meant to be today.”

Carpenter and Franchitti praised each other in post-race interviews for clean driving in the closing laps of the race.

“I’m happy for Ed and Sarah,” Franchitti said. “Ed drove a helluva race today!”

Carpenter said the manner in which he won the adrenaline-charged race was “thrilling. That’s the kind of races this series has been trademarked for. We don’t get them all the time anymore. It was a lot of fun, especially to be doing it with a guy like Dario Franchitti. He’s a champion and in my opinion one of the greatest of all time. There’s not many people I’d rather be battling toe-to-toe to the line but I knew it was going to be a clean fight.”

There are questions to be answered before the 2012 season for both Sarah Fisher Racing and the Kentucky Speedway.

Fisher said her team learned two weeks ago that “Dollar General wasn’t going to include us in their racing platform next year. Maybe this (win) will change that, I don’t know.”

Carpenter said he really feels at home at Kentucky Speedway, even with the numerous changes made to the facility over the years.

“I think all drivers have tracks that they just really enjoy,” he said. “This place has changed every year. I’ve been on the podium that past three years with three different teams and three different setups each time. I’m comfortable at this track. I don’t know exactly what it is but I like coming here and I sure hope it’s on the schedule next year.”

Presently, Kentucky Speedway is not included on the 2012 IndyCar Series schedule. The Indianapolis Star and SPEED magazine reported in separate announcements last week that Bruton Smith, whose Speedway Motorsports, Inc., owns the Kentucky track, and IndyCar CEO Randy Barnard have been meeting to discuss the 2012 schedule. SMI owns five tracks where the open wheel cars have competed this year. Barnard says that unless Kentucky Speedway secures a title sponsor for a 2012 race, the IndyCar Series will not return. The schedule for next season is expected to be announced at the final race of the 2011 series on Oct. 14 at Las Vegas, another SMI-owned track. Kentucky has hosted the world’s fastest open wheel racing series for the past 12 years.

Order of finish: 1. Ed Carpenter, 2. Dario Franchitti, 3. Scott Dixon, 4. James Hinchcliffe, 5. Ryan Hunter-Reay, 6. Oriol Serva, 7. Wade Cunningham, 8. Ryan Briscoe, 9. Buddy Rice. 10. Danica Patrick, 11. Townsend Bell, 12. Graham Rahal, 13. Charlie Kimball, 14. Dan Wheldon, 15. Takuma Sato, 16. Vitor Meira, 17. Tony Kanaan, 18. Mike Conway, 19. Will Power, 20. J.R. Hildebrand, 21. James Jakes, 22. Pippa Mann, 23. E.J. Viso, 24. Ana Beatriz, 25. Simona de Silvestro, 26. Alex Lloyd, 27. Marco Andretti, 28. Dillon Battistini, 29. Helio Castroneves.