at Kentucky may be difficult
two-time champ has had rocky season
SPARTA, Ky. (July 20, 2002) In the past two years
that the Indy Racing League has visited the Kentucky Speedway, driver
Buddy Lazier has had reserved parking in Victory Circle following the
"Belterra Casino Indy 300."
courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway
But that could easily change this year. Given the fact
that the IRL has had four different winners through July 20 this season,
the odds are growing that a new driver might take over Lazier's spot
in the Victory Circle when the series returns here Aug. 11. The 1:30
p.m. (EDT-fast time) race will be televised live on ABC-TV and preceded
by the debut of the Indy Racing Infiniti Pro Series race at 11 a.m.
"The season championship is wide open, that's for sure. I just
hope I'm there at the end and in the hunt," Lazier said at a recent
The Vail Colo., native hasn't yet won an IRL race this season. He has
had four top-10 finishes, but none in the top five. His best was seventh
at Phoenix, Fontana, Calif., and Kansas. But his season got a lift in
mid-July when he won the International Race of Champions event. It was
the third of an eventual four races featuring 12 drivers competing in
an "all star" series that concludes Aug. 3 at the Indianapolis
"The 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner started on the
pole July 13 and led all 67 laps of the caution-free IROC race at Chicagoland
Speedway. The victory in his Pontiac Firebird Trans Am put him in fifth
place, just seven points off the series points lead. Perhaps more importantly,
it gave him a confidence boost for the rest of the IRL regular season.
But on Saturday night, July 20, Lazier was taken out of the IRL's "Firestone
Indy 200" at Nashville, Tenn., when he hit the wall late in the
race. His renewed confidence was no match for bad luck.
The IRL visited Brooklyn, Mich., on July 28 prior to its stop in Kentucky.
Then Lazier will likely face an uphill battle when he returns to Sparta
to defend his title. Following the July 20 race in Tennessee, Lazier,
the 2000 IRL season champion, was in 12th place in the points race.
Leading the points race were Gil De Ferran, Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish
Jr., Felipe Giaffone and Alex Barron.
Even though Barron won, it was Hornish who dominated much of the race
in Nashville. He has done so many times this season, only to find himself
in second or third place at the end. Hornish has found the winner's
circle, however, on three occasions this year at the season opener
in Miami, at Fontana, Calif., and at Richmond, Va. He placed third in
three races, including the July 20 outing in Nashville, and second at
The Defiance, Ohio, native has had two exciting races at Kentucky and
nearly won here as a rookie in 2000. Last year, Hornish chased Lazier,
Robbie Buhl and Scott Sharp most of the day before finishing third behind
Lazier and Sharp. Hornish went on to win the series' point championship
after notching three victories and 11 top-five finishes and earning
$1.467 million. He is back again this season driving for Pennzoil Panther
Sharp led the first 105 laps at Kentucky last year but
seemed to have a different car after he emerged from his first pit stop.
Later, he was among a handful of drivers who complained about bumps
on the track. In the offseason, Kentucky Speedway officials repaved
the track. The result has been nothing but praise from drivers of all
circuits who have tested or raced there this year.
Lazier, meanwhile, led 84 laps last year but didn't take the lead for
good until Lap 198 when he slipped past Buhl as he ran out of gas due
to a pit stop error earlier in the race. Buhl had had passed Lazier
a lap earlier.
A confident and jubilent Lazier said afterward, "I would been real
surprised if he had gotten around me again (if he hadn't have run out
of gas)." Lazier had started 11th in the 22-car field.
After emerging from his car and hugging his wife, Kara, Lazier dedicated
his victory to his grandmother, Maxine, who was suffering from leukemia.
Then he was congratulated by team owner Ron Hemelgarn, who had taken
a chance on the driver and had it pay off when Lazier won the 1996 Indy
500. Lazier won that race while still healing from a broken back.
Lazier isn't suffering from broken bones this year, but perhaps a broken
ego. He hasn't been able to find the magic this season. Some former
CART drivers-turned IRL drivers, meanwhile, have provided the series
with more balance.
Look for a hotly contested race at Kentucky, with any one of the top
five drivers to find his way into Victory Circle. And who knows? Given
his record here, Lazier might still find the magic to win his third
consecutive "Belterra Casino Indy 300" title.
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