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IRL winners decided at Watkins Glen; Johnson grabs Nextel Chase points lead <br> Dixon finally crosses the line <br> Wheldon clinches IRL championship, Patrick top rookie

Everywhere you turned after Sunday's inaugural Watkins Glen Indy Grand Prix, there were celebrations that were a long time coming.

New Zealand's Scott Dixon won the race, his first victory in a year and a half. Englishman Dan Wheldon officially clinched the Indy Racing League championship after he spent the last two weeks tossing in his sleep. Danica Patrick, America's newest one-name celebrity, added to her historic season as she clinched the IRL's Rookie of the Year title.

Dixon, 25, hadn't won in 40 races, and this season he had just three top-10s and no top-fives. His last victory was at Richmond in June 2003, during his IRL title season. Dixon started fourth and led the race twice for 25 laps, including the last 13, in his red-and-white No. 9 Toyota-powered and Target-sponsored car before an estimated 35,000 wind-chilled fans at Watkins Glen International.

"It's kind of funny that it makes it feel so much better after having such a slump," said Dixon, who won $120,800 for his fourth career win. "You almost think that it's never going to come back, that you're never going to get a chance to win. I think today, once we started passing cars, running fast, able to catch people that were leading, I kind of knew that we could do it."

There was some anticlimax along for the ride for all three celebrants at the historic road course high above Seneca Lake. Patrick was extremely displeased with a 16th-place finish weighed down by her accidentally flipping the ignition switch off, while Wheldon ran in the middle of the pack all day before finishing fifth. Dixon wasn't about to complain, but even his drive under the checkered flag wasn't ideal: It came with him on the rear bumper of the pace car as the race finished under the yellow caution flag.

Dixon inherited the lead on lap 48 after a pit stop cycle and had built a two-second lead (about 15-20 car lengths) on Tony Kanaan entering the final lap. Dixon started fourth and spent all day in a lead pack with Kanaan, Dario Franchitti (who finished third), Giorgio Pantano (fourth) and Helio Castroneves.

Castroneves, nicknamed "Spider-Man," started on the pole and held the lead twice early for a total of 23 laps. But any chance of a wall-crawling celebration was canceled after his second pit stop, as his Toyota engine just didn't respond as it did for the first half of the race. His crash with Tomas Enge on the last lap -- both slammed hard into the guardrail on the outside of the backstretch after their tires touched (both drivers were unhurt) -- caused the race-ending caution (the fourth of the race) and left Castroneves 12th.

While Dixon celebrated in Victory Lane, there was another tailgate party going on outside the pit wall. The 27-year-old Wheldon stood atop the rear wing of his car with his arms raised as Andretti-Green teammate Kanaan provided a celebratory burnout.

The series champion used the exact phrase Dixon did when he said the win was "weight lifted off my shoulders."

Wheldon's wait was just a matter of days, but he said he had trouble sleeping until the championship was officially his. He had the title assured coming to the Glen after winning at Chicago two weekends ago, needing only to run a practice lap for a single clinching point. There's only race left, Oct. 16 at California Speedway.

"Until you actually finally clinched it, I don't think you ever feel like you clinched it," Wheldon said. "I came in this year focused on winning the Indy 500. . . . To win both in the same year I think is an unbelievable achievement. I thought I might be capable of doing it in my career, but I didn't think I'd be able to do it this quick."

Patrick finished in the same spot she started and was three spots behind Enge, the driver closest to her in the Rookie of the Year race, but she still became the first woman to win the IRL's rookie award. On lap 28, her car slowed entering the inner loop and had to be towed to the pits.

"I went to go adjust my brake bias," said the 23-year-old Patrick. "I'm pretty sure I knocked the ignition switch off, as they're right next to each other. Unfortunately, that's what happened. It's disappointing. I wanted to run well here.

"It's been a very memorable and very good first season. If I was told how the season was going to go, and it went like this, at the beginning of the season, I would have said, 'I'll take it.' I tend to get into the moment, down and depressed, angry when things go wrong like today or like some of the days in the past. . . . Why am I mad? I don't know. It's 'cause I'm driven. It's because I always want more. It's the reason why I'm probably here."

Major league open-wheel racing's return to the Glen for the first time since 1981 seemed to be very well-received by all racers, with Wheldon saying "this kind of track makes for great racing."

Patrick said the moment she'll take away from the Glen was when she took a ride around the 11-turn, 3.37-mile road course in her regular car with her parents and her fiance Saturday evening.

"I will remember going around and looking at all the campers and all the motor homes," said Patrick. "There were so many. That's amazing. That's so cool. That's so cool that there's that many fans out here for our first race out at Watkins Glen."

e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com

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