Some called it a dress rehearsal for Las Vegas, but Sunday’s Kentucky Indy 300 was a still an IZOD IndyCar Series points-paying race for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, driver Dan Wheldon and the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins at Magnolia team.

But if it were a dress rehearsal, all the dancers were happy with the performance.

Wheldon, the 2005 and 2011 winner of the Indianapolis 500, was behind the wheel of No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Honda/Dallara/Firestone car for the first time this year. In fact, his only other IndyCar race in 2011was his win at Indy in May. He will drive the car again in the IZOD IndyCar Series World Championships in two weeks in Las Vegas, where he will be eligible to win $5 million in the Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge.

The 14th-place finish might not look like good on paper, but Wheldon and the SSM team achieved all their Kentucky goals and are ready for Las Vegas.

After a pre-qualifying technical infraction, Wheldon was forced to start at the rear of the field – which he’ll have to do in Vegas as well – in today’s 200 lap race on Kentucky Speedway’s 1.5-mile tri-oval. Solid pit stop work by the Bowers & Wilkins crew and steady driving by Wheldon produced the solid finish. He even knocked on the door of the top-10 today before fading to 14th.

“It was an eventful day and it kept me busy, but that happens when you start from the back,” said Wheldon. “By the same token, we were able to move forward in the Bowers & Wilkins at Magnolia car. We just didn’t seem to quite have the speed and the balance necessary to get right to the front. I think certainly that this experience will help for Las Vegas and it certainly allows Nick (Snyder) and me to work together, along with the team, before we move to Las Vegas. That experience is invaluable.”

Wheldon and his teammate Wade Cunningham ran in the same pack for part of the race, before Cunningham surged to the front. Driving the No. 17 Air Ride Pallet/AFS/SSM Honda/Dallara/Firestone car co-entered by SSM and Gary Peterson’s AFS Racing, Cunningham opened eyes with his strong run. He ran has high as fourth before finishing in seventh-place and in the lead pack.

“The Air Ride Pallet AFS car handled great,” said Cunningham surrounded by supporters after the race. “We didn’t get as much race running done in the second practice. We did a little qualifying simulation work.  I wasn’t 100 percent sure where we needed to be in terms of race car. We moved up in the first two stints making wing changes and tire pressure adjustments. We went too far in the second stint, but Ben, my engineer, did a great job dialing it back. He didn’t make any wing changes in the last stop so we didn’t lose any positions during the yellow.

“Again, the car handled really well,” Cunningham added. “Once you get to those top-five guys, I ran fourth behind Dixon and I was able to push him around Hunter-Reay. But once I got there, that’s when you really noticed the extra down force that we were running. You really notice it when you’re running with the top-three guys. We did what we had to do to get through the cars. Once we got to the front, we just couldn’t go any further. That’s the compromise (extra down force) you make.  If I had played my cards better, we could have finished fourth but I am pleased with this finish today.”

Sarah Fisher Racing’s Ed Carpenter won his first IZOD IndyCar Series race by capturing the Kentucky Indy 300 in dramatic finish. He beat Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti, after the pair ran side-by-side for more than 20 laps, by .0098 of a second, which is the closest finish in Kentucky Speedway history. The finish was also the sixth-closest finish in IZOD IndyCar Series history.

The win was also Sarah Fisher Racing’s first in its history. SFR’s previous best finish was ninth with Graham Rahal at St. Petersburg in 2010. As a driver, Fisher became the first female driver to win a pole for an Indy Car race, which she did here at Kentucky also.

Frachitti’s teammate, Scott Dixon, finished third, which was his fifth top-five finish in the past five races. Rounding out the top five were Newman/Haas Racing’s James Hinchcliffe and Andretti Autosports’ Ryan Hunter-Reay.

The Kentucky Indy 300 saw three caution periods for a total of 32 laps, and there were seven lead changes among four drivers. There were also 19 cars running on the lead lap at the finish.

The last car on the lead lap was Penske Racing’s Will Power. That finish allowed Franchitti to move around Power in the championship with one race remaining. Franchitti leads Power by 17 points (573-555).

The final IZOD IndyCar Series race is the IZOD IndyCar Series World Championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, October 16. The race will be televised live at 3 p.m. (ET) on ABC and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network and on SiriusXM.

Date:                          Oct. 2, 2011

Event:                        Kentucky Indy (Round 16 of 17)

Series:                       IZOD IndyCar Series

Location:                  Kentucky Speedway in Sparta (1.5-mile tri-oval)

Start/Finish:            28th/14th (Running, completed 200 of 200 laps)

Teammate:              15th/7th (Running, completed 200 of 200 laps) 

Winner:                    Ed Carpenter of Sarah Fisher Racing